On 19 August 2014, just a few weeks ago, we “celebrated” this year’s Earth Overshoot Day, the day when we have already consumed the resources generated and to be generated by the Earth during the the whole year. This week, a new report was released showing further evidence that our global society has been progressing through the dreaded scenario 1 in “The Limits to Growth” report from 1972 [1], known as “business as usual” but better described as “overshoot and collapse”. We are living in interesting times. We should feel blessed …

Overshoot
Mid August. We will spend the coming four months eroding soils, overusing fertilizers, and accumulating stocks of pollution at rates much higher than the planet can recycle through its natural dynamics, thus harming its capacity to regenerate, transform and sustain life. This is equivalent to having spent our monthly salary by day 20, borrowing for the remaining 10 days. In the global case the loan will have to be paid by our children and grandchildren, not only in money, but in far more important assets such as lower quality of food and water, degraded health and an unpleasant Nature, amidst a potential social and environmental disarray of unheard of magnitude. If you have been through revolutions, uprisings, or any other form of local social collapse, you can easily imagine that similar events at global scale won’t be amusing.

The Earth Overshoot Day is a measure of our abuse of the planet, calculated by the Global Footprint Network. As we are more and more people on Earth, using more and more resources, the Earth Overshoot Day has fallen on earlier and earlier days over time:

ScientiaPlusConscientia_overshoot
Plot of Earth Overshoot Day over time. Note that calculations might have a non-negligible error bound. In any case, the trend is not flattering, and clearly shows our inability to adapt our living to the conditions of the Earth.

Collapse
A recent report by G.M. Turner at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia [2] is the latest comprehensive view of a process that has been previously shown by many other studies (see a long list of publications here): that the evolution path of our global society vastly disregards all criteria of sustainable development, using the available renewable resources at rates higher than their natural regeneration (e.g. fisheries, forests), using non-renewable resources at rates higher than the development of any substitute (e.g. soils, oil, gas), and releasing pollutants at rates higher than Nature can reabsorb and transform them (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane, PCB). The “business-as-usual” scenario, created as a realistic representation of a society like ours, obsessed with greed, consumption and the illusion of infinite growth, describes in its many variants an unsustainable path that invariably leads to an uncomfortable future, characterized by a much lower quality of life, drastic reduction in life expectancy and food availability, and an unpleasant Nature:

world3simulator_scenario1_annotated
Screen capture from the World3 simulator (http://world3simulator.org/) showing the projections for scenario 1 in “The Limits to Growth”. Note the dates on the horizontal axis. We are not far from the projected collapse.

Alternative futures
As an effort to give the image of a less traumatic future, we can finish these thoughts by noting that not everything is gloom-and-doom news yet, that we can still do something to avoid a global environmental catastrophe, although we are achingly running out of time. The very substantial changes we need require rethinking almost every aspect of our economy, social structures and relation to the environment, learning to live under Nature’s conditions. The challenges ahead are enormous. Some countries and regions have already made pertinent and useful changes, but the great majority of the world still lags with this.

Increased pressure on governments and politicians is necessary to force them to stop babbling and act, enforcing international climate and environmental pacts. However, the best place to start is right where we are, becoming ourselves agents of change [3], at our own personal and local scales of action, by choosing to consume less, finding new uses of what we already have, and recycling what cannot be reused, and by exercising as much as possible the “power of the purse”, forcing businesses to either adapt or go bust. Unfortunately, we should not forget that collapse may still be the most likely scenario, and perhaps it is reasonable to start considering how to face it (some suggestions might be found here [4]).

References:

[1] Meadows, D., Randers, J., & Meadows, D. (2004). Limits to growth: the 30-year update. Chelsea Green Publishing.

[2] Turner, G. (2014) ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[3] Robertson, M. (2014) Sustainability. Principles and practice. Routledge.

[4] Maher, T. M., & Baum, S. D. (2013). Adaptation to and recovery from global catastrophe. Sustainability, 5(4), 1461-1479.

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