COPENHAGEN – According to conventional wisdom, we are voraciously using the world’s resources and living way beyond Earth’s means. This narrative of decline and pessimism underlies much of today’s environmental discourse, and is often formulated in a simple fashion: by 2030, we will need two planets to sustain us, owing to higher living standards and population growth. If everyone managed to live at American living standards today, we would need almost five planets. But this received wisdom is fundamentally wrong.
Environmental campaigners use the so-called “ecological footprint” – how much area each one of us requires from the planet – to make their point. We obviously use cropland, grazing land, forests, and fishing grounds to produce our food, fiber, and timber, and we need space for our houses, roads, and cities. Moreover, we require areas to absorb the waste emitted by our energy use. Translating all these demands into a common unit of physical area gives us an opportunity to compare it with Earth’s productive area – and thus to get a sense of how sustainable we are.
For more than a decade, the World Wildlife Fund and several other conservation organizations have performed complicated calculations to determine individual “footprints” on the planet. Their numbers show that each American uses 9.4 hectares of the globe, each European 4.7 hectares, and those in low-income countries just one hectare. Adding it all up, we collectively use 17.5 billion hectares.
Unfortunately, there are only 13.4 billion hectares available. So the WWF points out that we are already living beyond Earth’s means, using around 30% too much. And it will get worse. They tell us that the recent financial crisis “pales in comparison to the looming ecological credit crunch,” which could presage “a large-scale ecosystem collapse.”