The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World - Paul Gilding (2011)
Chapter 3. A Very Big Problem
I have argued that humanity, the economy, and the planet’s ecosystem operate as a single interdependent system and that this system is in serious trouble. We will now look at the scientific and economic evidence for this.
Our story now moves from the past to the present. This means we need to understand the condition the planet’s ecosystem is currently in. What is our starting point?
At the Rio Earth Summit nearly twenty years ago, our leaders—representatives from 172 countries, including 108 heads of state—gathered in a momentous meeting that agreed protecting the environment was critical to sustained prosperity for humanity. The resulting declaration recognized many important principles that remain relevant today, such as the “precautionary principle”:
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.1
They also signed on to the UNFCCC, which committed them to “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system.”2
So in 1992, a road map for the subsequent decades of action was set. How did we do?
Any analysis of the state of the world’s capacity to support human society must be based on the physical sciences—measurement and trend analysis of actual physical activity based on our understanding of physics, biology, and chemistry. Therefore, I first want to make some comments on how nonscientists (people like me and most readers) can approach such information. I am often asked by people not involved in these issues day-to-day: “So how am I supposed to come to a view in these debates? I hear this side and that, and it just seems very confusing.”
The way through this confusion lies in a combination of a basic understanding of the scientific process and some good old common sense. In explaining this, I will use climate change as an example to make my point, but the principles apply across the board to all areas of sustainability-related science, which is my focus here.
As our starting point, it is critical to understand that the scientific process is deliberately designed to encourage the questioning and challenging of ideas. This is good. Otherwise our progress to greater knowledge would be much slower and ideas that are wrong would not be exposed as quickly. Humans in general, scientists included, get attached to ideas and ways of thinking, so skepticism is healthy as it pushes against this attachment and therefore should be encouraged. This makes genuine skepticism useful in life but especially in the scientific process.
The problem comes when people with a particular agenda use the debate this healthy skepticism creates to cherry-pick science that supports their position. It gets worse when they then use that narrow piece of science as supposed “evidence” that a whole area of analysis should be in doubt. The climate debate is very challenging in this regard because that process, which occurs anyway, is further driven by powerful and well-funded interests in a systematic and deliberate way. The book The Merchants of Doubt explores the way this has become endemic across many issues, from tobacco to climate change.3 A recent example on climate change would be Koch Industries, a U.S. oil and chemical giant with $100 billion in annual sales that has spent almost $25 million funding organizations involved in spreading climate denialism.4
The way past all this for the non-specialist is a simple one. In considering the complexity involved, you should be comfortable that no single scientist understands all the detail, either. They can’t, because they have one or a small number of scientific disciplines, whereas understanding something with the complexity of the global ecosystem requires many disciplines to be considered together. Any one individual who claims to understand it all in full detail, including a number of prominent skeptics, clearly doesn’t and should be treated with caution.
For this reason, the science already has a process embedded in it to deal with the challenge of cross-discipline issues and the inherent uncertainty they involve. This is important because we use scientific conclusions to guide everything from approval for medical processes and drugs to the design of bridges and the safety of airplanes. What happens is scientists come together and intellectually fight it out to reach what they call “consensus positions.” Scientific bodies, either within a discipline or across a number of disciplines as appropriate to the task, analyze an area of debate, rigorously peer-review the data, argue out the uncertainties, and come to a considered, collective view based on the balance of evidence. The process also plays itself out in the peer-reviewed journals, conferences, and other academic discussions, allowing a common view to emerge over time. This is what is meant by the term consensus. It is inappropriately named because it implies 100 percent agreement, which it isn’t, but it does represent the considered integrated view of qualified scientific experts.
It is a good example of where the collective mind is greater than the individual one. What these “consensus” positions effectively say is: “We have considered all the debate and the uncertainties, and we acknowledge them. We know what we know, but we also know where the uncertainties lie. Therefore the considered view of the top experts in the world on this topic is XYZ, and we have an ABC percent level of certainty in that view. So if you want to make a decision, this is the best advice on balance that can be provided by the science.”
Because so much of the process is internal, those inside the scientific community may recognize a consensus more easily than those outside it. That is why the important scientific organizations, which work internally but also communicate externally, can be particularly useful.
When this approach is applied to climate change, it is interesting to note that every major grouping of qualified scientists that has analyzed the issue comes to the same conclusion and has done so consistently over time and around the world. Examples include national science academies, which are the peak science bodies across all disciplines in a given country, or major international subsets of the scientific community, such as atmospheric scientists or, at the highest and most comprehensive level globally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The broad conclusion they all come to is that we face a significant risk of major change that undermines society’s prosperity and stability, we are a substantial contributor to the risk, and to reduce the level of risk we should dramatically reduce emissions of the pollution that causes the problem. As with most issues in sustainability, defining the problem and the solutions is really very simple.
This “consensus position” on climate change is also reflected in the rigorously peer-reviewed journals in which research is presented and issues are debated. One study by Naomi Oreskes published in the journal Sciencedemonstrated that of the papers whose abstract contained the keywords global climate change between 1993 and 2003, none questioned the consensus position—not one.5 Oreskes’s subsequent book Merchants of Doubt interestingly reveals how many of the figures who fronted the tobacco industry’s antiscience campaign to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer are also now prominent and vocal climate skeptics.
A more recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used a data set of 1,372 published climate researchers and their publication and citation history, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those climate researchers publishing most actively on the topic agreed with the tenets of climate change as identified by the IPCC. They also found the expertise and prominence of the scientists who agreed with the IPCC findings to be substantially higher than that of the scientists who did not.6
Of course, there are always outliers who hold a different view regarding the level of consensus on an issue, and that is good. In the case of climate change, though, this uncertainty, where it is genuine, applies to detailed subissues such as regional variations or speed of change, not to the basic conclusion. There is organized skepticism, but it comes primarily from small groups that have banded together specifically for the purpose of promoting uncertainty, as opposed to the scientific bodies that are structured to apply their expertise objectively across a scientific discipline. These organized groups leap on any mistake, such as those detailed in the so-called Climategate e-mails, and pretend it has some greater significance regarding the whole process and conclusions, even though numerous independent reports and investigations concluded the Climategate e-mails did nothing to question the science of climate change.7
So it is important to separate the two types of skepticism. On the one hand, we have the scientific process, where outliers have a healthy role to play in challenging dominant views and seeking to find holes in consensus positions. On the other, we have an ideologically or commercially driven process, which deliberately seeks to undermine a viewpoint for political or commercial gain rather than scientific inquiry. These are increasingly called “deniers” or the “antiscience crowd,” to separate them from those genuine scientists engaged in healthy skepticism.
This separation is important to the health of science. It is dangerous to dismiss all counterarguments to the consensus on climate science as coming from climate denialists or as representing corrupt science driven by coal or oil industry funding. This is not to say the latter doesn’t exist, but there is alongside it a healthy skepticism that we should celebrate as being at the core of good science. We should be aware that discouraging people who challenge the consensus risks undermining good science.
This is where common sense comes in. You should not be overwhelmed by scientific complexity. The experts are capable of sifting that and telling us what we need to know. An inquiring mind and common sense are all you need to draw your own conclusions.
So how do we apply this to our task with common sense?
First we need to think about how and where the science is being applied. Science at the scientific research level is about finding the “truth.” That process is generally about narrowing uncertainties until we know with a high degree of certainty how something works and how it will behave in different situations. This high degree of certainty is the right approach to take when the field of inquiry or application is narrow. Examples include designing a chemical plant or a nuclear power station, where the consequences of failure are catastrophic and immediate and the uncertainties can be narrowed to a manageable level.
We get into trouble when we take this approach of requiring certainty and apply it to the worlds of broad policy and business strategy. Doing so often translates into “We’re not sure, so we shouldn’t change anything.”
In those worlds, the commonsense approach is to get solid advice that informs us on balance what is likely to happen and what the levels of risk are in different paths. It therefore requires not certainty but broad general agreement as to direction, an understanding of where the uncertainties lie, and an analysis of what the consequences might be if those uncertainties lead to different outcomes.
It is through this framework of common sense that I view the science of sustainability. I am comfortable with a degree of uncertainty, and I recognize that we cannot know everything we’d like to know about how things will unfold.
I am uncomfortable, however, with those who argue that the uncertainties are justification for delay and inaction; that because we’re not sure, we should stay on our current path. The reason this is so dangerous is that we are not dealing with normal policy or economic challenges here, where error can generally be later rectified and the course altered in response to new information. We are dealing with changes that are in some cases irreversible, at least in time frames meaningful to humanity. Failure in this particular set of issues is unforgiving.
A commonly used analogy to explain this is the medical one. If you were told you had a serious heart problem, a clogged artery that posed a very high risk of a fatal heart attack, you would respond dramatically. There would still be uncertainty, but if a doctor said you had a 25 to 50 percent chance of a fatal event in the next five years, you would not respond with, “Oh well, let me know when you’re 100 percent certain and then I’ll consider surgery or taking medicine.” You would respond immediately, because a 25 to 50 percent chance of catastrophic failure (death) is a very high likelihood.
In summary, what this means is we should not look for certainty in our assessment of the science of sustainability, because certainty will not be found until it is too late to influence the outcome. You can’t measure the future. We need instead to take a commonsense or precautionary approach—what are the scientists collectively telling us about the level of risk that we face, what are the consequences of acting early or late, and what is the right strategy to follow in response?
So in that context, let me move on to answer the first of those questions: What is the science telling us about the state of the global ecosystem and how much risk we face? Just how serious are the challenges, and what would failure in this context look like?
There have been many studies published concerning the state of the global ecosystem. As we discussed earlier, however, the danger with considering something as abstract as the “global ecosystem” is that we tend to see it as a system “over there,” the place we visit on occasion. While of course Rachel Carson and others have long demonstrated the fallacy of such a view, we still struggle with it. Therefore the best way to consider the science from a human impact point of view is to take the “ecosystem services” approach—to look at those things in the ecosystem that we draw on every day for our human society and economy.
Probably the best and most comprehensive work done to date in this approach is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a 2004 report that resulted from an investigation by 1,300 scientists who were commissioned by the UN to comprehensively analyze the state of the global environment.8 The report took a human point of view by looking at the planet’s ability to provide the services we take from it to nourish our lives, from basic requirements like food to the various resources we need to feed the global economy, like fiber.
This is why the MEA was so important. It clearly assessed the ecosystem as the underpinning of the human economy and society.
What the MEA did was to identify twenty-five ecosystem services, or categories of activity that humans use. They then assessed the peer-reviewed, quality science that analyzes the state of those services around the world and concluded how sustainable our level of use was. These included recreational and spiritual services such as tourism and the pleasure we get from nature, but the report focused mainly on direct services like fish to eat, land to grow food on, forests to provide fiber, regulation of the climate, the cleaning and provision of water, and so on.
The report’s conclusion was that sixteen of those twenty-five services were being used unsustainably and, in summary:
At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.
I think it is important to clarify at this point the use of the words sustainable and unsustainable. They have been used so much, they have lost some of their meaning, becoming almost philosophical views rather than the literal logical terms they are.
In this case, if a system is being used unsustainably and behavior doesn’t change, then it will no longer be available to use. This is a practical issue; if we don’t have enough fiber, food, or water, or if we don’t have a stable climate, then we simply won’t have the economy or society we have now. So through this and other studies, we can now define and measure what Rachel Carson argued forty-five years ago: We are part of the environment, and our economy, health, and lives all depend upon it.
For decades in my work, I approached this issue from a values or philosophical perspective. It was my view, instinctively held, that messing with the environment was a bad idea. It was a place of extraordinary wonder and beauty, something way more impressive than anything humanity had ever created. So not looking after it was just dumb. The issue that brought this home to me most strongly was biodiversity, particularly through the lens of time. It had taken billions of years for the amazing diversity of life on earth to develop in all its dazzling complexity, brilliant design, and joyful wonder. So the idea that we were on track to wipe out 50 percent or more of all that amazing creation through our actions over just a few short centuries, for the sake of material distraction and fleeting satisfaction, was incredibly stupid. Not to mention breathtaking in its arrogance.
So for decades I presented countless speeches and workshops on these issues, appealing to people’s humanity, sense of obligation, and morality to bring them along to the cause. Generally my audiences, often businesspeople, agreed with genuine earnest endorsement, but little actually changed in their lives, their organizations, or the broader community.
Then in 2005 I changed tack. When the ideas laid out in this book first became clear to me—that this issue was going to have a direct, short-term economic impact—I decided to communicate that instead.
I remember very clearly, when I presented this to a U.K. seminar of senior business executives at Cambridge University, how my new approach generated an entirely different response. I no longer argued that this was about the destruction of ecological systems or the arrogance of humanity’s disrespect for nature; rather, I warned my listeners that the global economy was at risk of sudden collapse and with it their pension funds, their personal wealth, and their companies. The level of engagement in response was a quantum leap from what I had seen previously. It wasn’t a wholly positive response, as I’d witnessed when I had presented on the risk to the environment. This was more sharply personal. People found the threat to the economy and to economic growth far more challenging than the threat to our planet.
My first reaction was critical, that these people cared so much about money and so little about the world. On reflection, however, I realized the criticism should be on me and my kind, that we had failed previously to communicate these issues in a way that engaged people in their lives; instead, we had preferred to stay on the ground of ethics and righteousness, perhaps believing that put us in some kind of higher moral position.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of previous approaches, what was now clear was that we had arrived at a point in history when these issues had become practical and very real. The time frame between assessment of the problem and direct economic and personal impact on people’s lives had shrunk from forty years to ten or even less, and the level of engagement would now increase commensurately.
The Milllennium Ecosystem Assessment communicates this shift clearly. We now face threats that are not philosophical but intensely practical and personal. They are not about the balance between environmental protection and economic growth, but about the causal relationship between them. We face threats to our food supply because of excessive degradation of land and changing rainfall patterns brought about by climate change. We face further risks to food supply because of the potential collapse of fisheries both through overfishing and through broader damage to ocean ecosystems. Billions of people face increasingly urgent issues about access to fresh and clean water, both for everyday consumption and to supply industrial and agricultural processes. These and many other issues will have a direct impact on economic growth, on geopolitical and domestic security, and on our quality of life. The flow on effects of any one of these trends, let alone a number of them in combination, will be dramatic. It is important to emphasize this point—that environmental damage means economic loss—because many still don’t fully accept the connection.
With fisheries, for example, the science suggests that with our current growth trajectory all global fisheries are on the path to collapse—indeed 30 percent of them already have. A study published in Science in 2009 concluded that every type of fish currently consumed by people will have collapsed by 2048, defined as catches having dropped by 90 percent. When they say collapsed, they mean just that—the end of the fishing industry. With five hundred million people9 in families that depend upon the direct and indirect income of fisheries and around one billion people relying on fish as their prime source of animal protein, the economic and social implications of collapse are profound, as the MEA demonstrates. We’re already feeling the impact, with a World Bank study of 2008 finding that overfishing was already costing the industry $50 billion a year.10
We can get an idea of what this would look like by considering the smaller case study of the collapse of the Newfoundland cod in Canadian waters in the early 1990s due to overfishing. In a haunting example of sudden, nonlinear change, the catch size dropped from hundreds of thousands of tons a year to close to zero in the space of just a few years, despite a failed last-minute attempt to save the stock through the imposition of catch quotas. Along with the loss of a valuable industry, the collapse led to the loss of thirty thousand jobs and a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion in income support and retraining. If sustainable fishing had been practiced instead, the industry would today be worth $900 million a year.
Aquaculture is often proposed as a solution to declining catches. While aquaculture has theoretical potential, current practices suggest that the ecosystem economics is questionable there as well. Farmed fish species such as salmon and tuna have to be fed many times their body weight in wild fish meal, increasing inefficiency and diverting cheap fish protein catches away from local populations. The loss of ecosystem services in establishing aquaculture farms can also be huge. A 2001 study of mangroves in Thailand referenced by the MEA found that protecting mangroves and their existing uses returned between $1,000 and $36,000 per hectare, whereas conversion to shrimp farming returned just $200 per hectare.
When thinking of water systems and economics, we often gravitate toward the oceans, but inland water systems are tremendously important as well, and under particular strain. An estimated 50 percent of them were lost in the twentieth century. Even after this loss, the ecosystem services provided by inland water systems have been estimated at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion annually. As an example of direct human losses following environmental change, we need look no further than the Aral Sea, an inland sea and one of the world’s four largest lakes, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Severe overirrigation originating in the Soviet era literally drained the once massive lake, so that by 2007 it had been reduced to 10 percent of its former size. Around thirty-five million people were dependent upon the lake for water, fish, and transport—services it no longer provides. The loss of water has dramatically changed the climate and is quickly turning the area into a desert, with hotter, drier summers and colder winters. With declining water quality and availability, increased dust storms, and a host of other associated problems, the region has seen its rates of a whole range of diseases increase dramatically, along with the number of children born with birth defects. Once again, environmental problems caused direct human and economic loss with surprisingly broad systemwide impacts.
The ongoing TEEB Report—The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity—builds upon the work of the MEA to provide an up-to-date and quantified understanding of the value of ecosystem services. One example they provide looks at the case of deforestation in China between 1950 and 1998, where a massive increase in the logging of natural forests provided the backbone for the construction industry in a rapidly expanding economy. This period of growth has vastly improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese, but it has not been without a cost. In this case, the study concluded that the loss of ecosystem services, in the form of flood damage, drought, lost nutrients, and so on, amounted to an economic loss of $12.2 billion annually. This loss amounted to almost double the market value of the timber over the same time period. For every $1 of timber sold in China, $1.78 of ecosystem services were lost.11
These are just a few examples of how ecosystem breakdown has far-reaching economic impacts. With ecosystem change and breakdown now under way globally, I draw two conclusions. First is that the economic impacts will be global and system threatening, and second is that these threats are no longer to our children’s children, but to us. They are hitting on our watch.
So if this is the case, why have we not responded? Why do we ignore such pressing global environmental challenges yet respond so dramatically to economic ones, as we did in 2008 during the financial crisis?
The answer is that despite the overwhelming evidence, we still don’t see these issues as economic ones. People hear and accept the environmental arguments, but they don’t fully accept their economic impacts. So I’m often told something like this:
Look, I get these issues are really important and I care about them deeply, but while the loss of rainforests and coral reefs would be tragic, it won’t directly affect us that much in our day-to-day lives.
This is a common assertion, which I understand looking at the history of the debate. It is the legacy of environmentalists and scientists focusing for decades on the ecological impacts, framing the issues as one of protecting “the environment.”
Most people still don’t think they live in “the environment” but rather see that as “somewhere else,” so they connect to environmental protection in an abstract way. I don’t mean they think this literally and logically—people get the basic science of where humans fit into the ecosystem and evolution. I’m referring more to a kind of cultural context and resulting subconscious response.
This view is deeply ingrained. For thousands of years, humans have sought to distance themselves from “nature,” which historically was a difficult environment in which to live, with many sources of discomfort and danger, from extreme weather to dangerous animals. So we have been steadily moving our society away from it and into air-conditioned houses, sealed buildings, massive sprawling cities, large comfortable “climate-controlled” cars, and so on. Not everyone can afford this, but even those who can’t mostly aspire to.
So in this context, many people have engaged with environmental protection in an abstract way, separating it from their lives in both space and time. They see the threat being to the environment, as in nature—forests, polar bears, orangutans, and whales—and to the future, as in their children’s children.
This natural cultural tendency has been caught in a self-reinforcing loop with what works for advocates of change. At Greenpeace we were acutely aware that our membership was more responsive to the need to “save the environment” when it was positioned as saving whales, especially if they were being killed by foreigners a long way away. In the 1990s, asking them to give up their cars was rather less popular than asking for $50 to stop foreigners from butchering whales!
All this is interesting historically but unfortunately is no longer relevant. As articulated by studies into the economic linkages to ecosystem breakdown and resource constraint, the economic impacts will be dramatic and have direct global and personal impact.
On the global scale, studies like that by Sir Nicholas Stern have put numbers on this impact in just the narrow case of climate change. In Stern’s study, he concluded that unchecked climate change could lead to a 20 percent decline in gross domestic product (GDP), an estimate that appears increasingly conservative as the science progresses.
The economic implications aren’t just about the direct costs of systems failing. We also need to consider the costs of creating the required alternative economic infrastructure. These costs are often put forward as a reason for delay. In fact the opposite is the case, because Mother Nature doesn’t wait for us to get around to it, so the impacts keep marching on and therefore the response becomes more expensive. Again taking the example of climate change, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that every year of delay on climate change increases the cost of building the new energy infrastructure required because the necessary rate of reduction gets steeper and steeper, stranding capital assets. They estimate every year of delay means we will pay an extra $500 billion.12
The system complexity of the economic impacts of ecosystem degradation is considerable, however, explaining further why it’s hard for us to incorporate it into decision making.
This complexity is brought to the fore in studies like the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s report into planetary boundaries. Their innovative approach was to identify key natural systems that were critical to human civilization as it has developed and thrived. Where possible, they then defined absolute limits to changes in those systems, limits that could not be crossed without endangering our prosperity and stability. The results were summarized in the scientific journal Nature.13 The study identified nine such boundaries and found that we had already crossed three of them—climate change, biodiversity loss, and nitrogen levels—and were approaching several others.
The study provides numerous examples of the interlinkages between ecosystem health and economic prosperity. For example, it showed how our efforts to increase agricultural productivity have led to us dramatically exceeding the earth’s capacity to absorb our emissions of nitrogen.
Nutrients in the form of nitrogen are added to the land as fertilizer to boost crop production. However, when they are washed into the oceans, they have the opposite effect, as they encourage algal blooms and deplete oxygen levels to the point where nothing else can survive. So while in this case significant economic benefit comes from higher food productivity, significant economic loss comes from loss of drinking water, loss of fisheries, and dead rivers. It was estimated that the total economic losses from freshwater eutrophication in the United States was $2.2 billion in 2009 alone.14
Other studies have put a number on the total value of all ecosystem services to the economy. The most comprehensive attempt to do so was published in Nature in 1997 and has been cited thousands of times subsequently.15 Based upon a thorough literature review and compilation, the team of scientists and economists who produced the report estimated that the total value of ecosystem services was between $16 trillion and $54 trillion annually, with an average of $33 trillion. They noted the uncertainties but took a conservative approach and stressed that “this must be considered a minimum estimate.” Versus this figure, they noted that total global gross national product (GNP) in 1997 was around half that at $18 trillion. Recent work done by the TEEB project, led by Deutsche Bank’s Pavan Sukhdev, provides valuable tools that business and policy makers can use to integrate this way of thinking into their work. While different studies will produce different numbers and details, the core conclusions are always the same. What we get from nature is fundamental to our economy, and without these inputs we would in fact produce nothing. Yet most political debates are still framed in the context of environmental protection being “nice to have” if we can afford it.
What all this means is we have clearly moved beyond needing to protect what environmentalists call “charismatic megafauna” like polar bears and pandas. We are now firmly in the space of needing to protect rather less charismatic creatures, like you and me. Let there be no doubt that if the environment crashes, the economy will go with it.
So while it is clear that environmental damage leads to economic loss, how certain are we of the underlying assessment of the environmental damage? Good science, like good business strategy, requires us to check our conclusions against other sources. In scientific language, we need multiple independent lines of evidence. In the case of the global sustainability challenge, we are fortunate to have a plethora of them.
One of the more famous, because it provides such a beautifully simple way to communicate a complex problem, is the work of the Global Footprint Network.16 This group of scientists, under the supervision of an eminent global advisory board, takes the complexity of the various ecological services such as those detailed in the MEA and translates them into the area of the earth’s surface needed to sustain them. To quote from their report, they take “5,400 data points for each country, each year, derived from internationally recognized sources to determine the area required to produce the biological resources a country uses and to absorb its wastes, and to compare this with the area available.”
In other words, they work out how much land we would need to support our economy and lifestyle and then compare that with how much suitable land we have available to do so. By analyzing this globally, they show us how many “planets” we need to sustain our current economy—either how much more we can still grow the economy if the answer is less than one planet, or how far past sustainable capacity we are if the answer is more than one. The answer on a global scale is that in 2009, we needed 140 percent of the available land, or 1.4 planets.17 It was just 1986 when we first went past the earth’s capacity, and we’ve been exceeding this capacity ever since. This means we are using up our capital every day now just to survive.
It is often easier to understand the implications of this by thinking about it in terms of personal finance or of running a business.
Suppose you ran your life or your company with all your money coming from two bank accounts, one with the capital—the amount you start with—and one with income—the interest you earn from your capital. You can’t obtain any more capital except by transferring it back from your interest account. For humanity, the earth is our capital: We can’t create any more planet.
Each year on January 1, the interest you have earned on your capital balance is transferred into your income account, representing in our comparison all the services we take from the earth.
If you ran your life in 2009 the way we run the earth, you would have spent your whole year’s interest income by September 25 and the balance would then be zero. However, you’d still have expenses after that date, so you would draw cash from your capital account from September 25 until December 31. This would decrease the balance there, but your lifestyle wouldn’t be affected yet because you would have all the cash you needed. You wouldn’t yet notice any difference day-to-day.
Then the next year, on January 1, 2010, your interest would be transferred into your income account again, but it would be less than last year because the balance in your capital account would be lower after your withdrawals over the last three months of 2009. In 2010, however, you would have greater need for cash (representing our growing economy), so you would have both less income and greater costs. As a result, in 2010 the interest income would be all gone earlier, meaning you would need to draw more cash from your capital account than you did in 2009.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to borrow any money to pay back in future. Why not? Because the bank would have noted that your spending was already 40 percent greater than your income and getting worse each year, so there’d be no way you could pay any loan back. Even more fundamental, if your capital account balance represents the planet, there’s nothing else to lend you.
Nevertheless, in our comparison, this still works for you for a while. In fact, each year your lifestyle appears to get better because your expenditure is growing and you can buy more stuff, representing our growing economy. Things feel good day-to-day.
But then one year there isn’t enough money in the capital account to top up your income account. It doesn’t happen slowly, it all happens on the day the money runs out. Then suddenly the game is up and your personal economy falls over. You can’t pay your bills and you can’t buy your food. This is system collapse.
Every time a group of qualified scientists reviews the situation using different approaches, they reach comparable conclusions. In the absence of a monthly statement from the bank, these conclusions are the closest thing we have to a planetary income balance sheet. Their conclusion is we are trading insolvently.
As Joe Romm of ClimateProgress.com has observed, what this means is that the global economy is basically a giant Ponzi scheme. We are using our capital to pay out income to the investors (us), and then one day the capital will run out and the scheme will suddenly fall over.
The question in this comparison becomes, how long do we have? Is it possible to cut back our spending enough to prevent the capital from running out? Can we act to restore our capital by restoring the damage we have already done to the earth? I will answer these questions in the following chapters.
A critical approach taken by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and one that needs to be given much more prominence, is that there are tipping points in the system that when passed can lead to systemic breakdown that self-accelerates and is irreversible. Fisheries are a good example of this. This risk requires us to set boundaries that allow for a margin of error, something we always do when we apply risk assessments to engineering design tasks. We don’t, for example, define the stress levels when a plane will fall apart and then design it to operate at that limit; we allow for a large margin for error because failure is catastrophic.
The crucial significance in all these studies is not the conclusions drawn in each particular report. In the context of the scientific process discussed earlier, the significance is that whenever a group of credible scientists analyzes these global issues from their particular perspective, they all draw the same basic conclusions—we are using the earth’s resources at a rate that cannot be sustained, and if we don’t change, the system will at some point face a crisis, most probably a nonlinear one characterized by a disruptive, relatively sudden shift in the state of the global ecosystem.
In order to relate to these issues, people often focus on local impacts of extreme weather or natural climatic disasters. There’s no shortage of examples of this playing out today, with direct human and economic impacts. In my home country, Australia, we have in recent years experienced many of them. We’ve had the worst drought on record, with serious impacts on our food production and collapsing river systems. We’ve had to urgently build expensive and energy-intensive desalination plants when we faced the prospect that some of our largest cities could run out of water. We’ve had the most intense wildfires on record, with hundreds killed, and we’ve had record heat waves that have led to hundreds more fatalities, like the heat wave (the kind that hits just once every three thousand years) that ravaged my hometown of Adelaide in March 2008.
As I write this book, new heat records are being set all around the world and in global averages. Pakistan is facing instability and widespread suffering from extraordinary floods. Russia has banned wheat exports after record-breaking temperatures and a severe drought threatened food supplies. Each time a record is broken or new extreme weather impacts are observed, it is easy and understandable to focus on them. However, the science says don’t pay too much attention to individual events or years, focus on the global system and trends as a whole, as we’ve covered. This is what should concern us most.
Despite all this evidence, when I present on this topic, one of the questions I often get is something along the lines of “Surely it’s not that bad? I understand it’s serious, but environmentalists and scientists need to shock us into action, so they exaggerate, don’t they?”
In response, I often refer to what a nice day it is outside, what a pleasant and safe walk I had to the venue, what a good breakfast we all had that morning after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable home or hotel. My point is to acknowledge that it is really hard, in the face of all this, to internalize that the global ecosystem is on the brink of crisis, or perhaps already in one, when we don’t directly feel or see the signals around us.
This is a human response based on instincts we have developed over millions of years. We respond to danger that is physically close and immediate in time. This response has served us well, when the neighboring tribe attacked or when there was a tiger at the cave entrance.
So here we are in the modern era with the same instincts. For most readers, things are good, life is interesting, our needs are met, and the environment we see every day seems pretty good. Sure, there are issues, but it doesn’t feel as if we’re on the verge of systemic collapse, that’s for sure. We focus instead on tonight’s dinner, the project we have due at work, or the challenge we’re facing in our relationship.
The problem is that we don’t sense any danger in our physical, instinctive senses. Those who do, such as those facing wildfire, drought, or flood, respond to that immediate challenge, focusing on their personal safety and protecting their friends and family.
To understand the threat we face here, we have to resort to global ecosystem science, an area most people find intimidating and confusing. However, we simply have no choice. Given the time it takes to change human instincts, we are going to have to work with what we’ve got!
So my response to this question is that you either accept the science, articulated by groups of experts and based on a rational assessment, or you don’t. This is the way it is, because most of us don’t see, and critically won’t see, sufficient physical manifestations of ecosystem collapse in our lives until the process is well and truly under way.
So the answer is yes, it really is that bad, and as we covered earlier, the scientific consensus is clear on that point.
So to summarize, this is our baseline, the place from where we can start to discuss how the future is likely to unfold. We have a problem, a Very Big Problem, because we have already passed the limits of the planet’s capacity to support our economy. Limits that when crossed are unforgiving and will impact us directly.
So what happens next?
Here we must first dive deeper into the problem, but don’t worry, I promise I will bring you back out again. So stay with me for the whole ride!