Citizen Action Monitor

Sixty years of environmental action and humanity remains in ecological overshoot

It’s time to accept that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

No 2005 Posted by fw, July 11, 2017

Dr Samuel Alexander

“According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetish continues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase. Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined…. Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet…. I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity…. Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.”Samuel Alexander, The Conversation

David Suzuki made much the same point in yesterday’s post: David Suzuki faults politicians and political system for failures of environmental movement

“So, what’s happened? What we thought were [environmental] victories, were not victories at all. They were temporary and they were skirmishes, because the deep underlying cause of our destructiveness hasn’t really been touched by those battles that are going on. I feel that there is a need to change our relationship with the planet.”

For Alexander, Co-Director of the Simplicity Institute and a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, the solution to humanity’s ecological overshoot crisis is “planned economic contraction” by the richest nations.

For Suzuki, the solution is a new environmental movement to pressure politicians to embed “the right to a healthy environment” in Canada’s charter of rights and freedoms.

For both, the challenge is to find a path that will get us to the long-promised land – an ecologically sustainable economy.

Below is a repost of Samuel Alexander’s article, with added subheadings and bulleted formatting in selected places. Alternatively, read the article on the publisher’s website by clicking on the following linked title.

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If everyone lived in an ‘ecovillage’, the Earth would still be in trouble by Samuel Alexander, The Conversation, June 25, 2015

Most reports grossly underestimate what is needed for our civilization to become sustainable

We are used to hearing that if everyone lived in the same way as North Americans or Australians, we would need four or five planet Earths to sustain us.

This sort of analysis is known as the “ecological footprint” and shows that even the so-called “green” western European nations, with their more progressive approaches to renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport, would require more than three planets.

How can we live within the means of our planet? When we delve seriously into this question it becomes clear that almost all environmental literature grossly underestimates what is needed for our civilization to become sustainable.

Only the brave should read on.

The ‘ecological footprint’ analysis

Ecological Footprint Analysis is widely used for measuring human impact on the environment

In order to explore the question of what “one planet living” would look like, let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most prominent metric for environmental accounting – the ecological footprint analysis. This was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, then at the University of British Columbia, and is now institutionalized by the scientific body, The Global Footprint Network, of which Wackernagel is president.

The method, in brief

This method of environmental accounting attempts to —

  • measure the amount of productive land and water a given population has available to it,
  • and then evaluate the demands that population makes upon those ecosystems

A sustainable society is one that operates within the carrying capacity of its dependent ecosystems.

Critics of the method claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact

While this form of accounting is not without its critics – it is certainly not an exact science – the worrying thing is that many of its critics actually claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact. Even Wackernagel, the concept’s co-originator, is convinced the numbers are underestimates.

Recent data indicates humanity is in ecological overshoot, and economic growth will exacerbate the problem

According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetish continues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase.

A worsening state of overshoot is an existential threat for all life on earth

Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

The footprint of an ecovillage

Even the famous Findhorn Ecovillage is in overshoot – (Could it be that villagers fly too much?)

As I have noted, the basic contours of environmental degradation are relatively well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a “fair share” ecological footprint.

Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecovillage can be broadly understood as an “intentional community” that forms with the explicit aim of living more lightly on the planet. Among other things, the Findhorn community has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy and makes many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials.

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. Irenicrhonda/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community. It was discovered that even the committed efforts of this ecovillage still left the Findhorn community consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be sustained if everyone lived in this way. (Part of the problem is that the community tends to fly as often as the ordinary Westerner, increasing their otherwise small footprint.)

Implication – a world of ecovillages would still need 1½ planet’s worth of biocapacity!

Put otherwise, based on my calculations, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, we would still need one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. Dwell on that for a moment.

Will this awareness-raising news arouse us? 

I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I share this to criticize the noble and necessary efforts of the ecovillage movement, which clearly is doing far more than most to push the frontiers of environmental practice.

Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

A “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are

In a full world of seven billion people and counting, a “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today.

Business-as-usual economic growth won’t get us where we need to be

Such fundamental change to our ways of living is incompatible with a growth-oriented civilization.

Some people may find this this position too “radical” to digest, but I would argue that this position is merely shaped by an honest review of the evidence.

What would ‘one planet’ living look like?

Have we learned nothing from 60 years of an environmental movement?

Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

As individuals, we must —

Nevertheless, just as the basic problems can be sufficiently well understood, the nature of an appropriate response is also sufficiently clear, even if the truth is sometimes confronting.

  • We must swiftly transition to systems of renewable energy,
  • recognising that the feasibility and affordability of this transition will demand that we consume significantly less energy than we have become accustomed to in the developed nations.
  • Less energy means less producing and consuming.
  • We must grow our food organically and locally, and
  • eat considerably less (or no) meat.
  • We must ride our bikes more and
  • fly less,
  • mend our clothes,
  • share resources,
  • radically reduce our waste streams and
  • creatively “retrofit the suburbs to turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. In doing so, we must challenge ourselves to journey beyond the ecovillage movement and explore an even deeper green shade of sustainability.
  • Among other things, this means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency.
  • Unpopular though it is to say, we must also have fewer children, or else our species will grow itself into a catastrophe.

As a society, we must —

  • But personal action is not enough. We must restructure our societies to support and promote these “simpler” ways of living.
  • Appropriate technology must also assist us on the transition to one planet living. Some argue that technology will allow us to continue living in the same way while also greatly reducing our footprint.
  • However, the extent of “dematerialization” required to make our ways of living sustainable is simply too great. As well as improving efficiency, we also need to live more simply in a material sense, and
  • re-imagine the good life beyond consumer culture.

The richest among us must initiate planned economic contraction. But how?

First and foremost, what is needed for one planet living is for the richest nations, including Australia, to initiate a “degrowth” process of planned economic contraction.

I do not claim that this is likely or that I have a detailed blueprint for how it should transpire. I only claim that, based on the ecological footprint analysis, degrowth is the most logical framework for understanding the radical implications of sustainability.

Two defining questions remain

Can the descent from consumerism and growth be prosperous? Can we turn our overlapping crises into opportunities?

These are the defining questions of our time.

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