Consuming planet Earth

ID-10010628 (2)Since we first saw images of planet Earth from space in 1968, GDP per capita has almost doubled and mean life expectancy has risen from 56 to 69.6 years. These increases in income and health have been coupled with the depletion of natural capital, increased greenhouse gas emissions and increasing hunger and poverty.

As the book, The Limits to Growth, warned in 1972, the earth’s natural capital is limited and at some point we will reach these limits. Rising prices of goods and services as well as break downs in ecosystem services will indicate this threshold has been breached.  And we have passed this checkpoint. Global metrics that measure human impact on earth’s natural resources such as the Human Development Index, Genuine Progress Indicator, Ecological Footprints, and the Happy Planet Index, all indicate that the earth has exceeded its ability to provide resources to meet human demands and that further human consumption is impacting the earth’s ability to provide such services.

A recent paper authored by Jules Pretty of the University of Essex states that “overshoot has already begun to occur, in which more resources are being used than can be regenerated each year. Yet conventional economic growth is still a primary political goal in most countries.” A Royal Society report of 2012 made clear that unrestrained growth will at some point end as the finite limits of our natural resources are reached.

The paper, entitled The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-Being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy, analyses the relationship between such consumption indicators as GDP, CO2 emissions and meat consumption with well-being across 189 countries and, for three affluent countries, across a time span of 60 years.

Well-being and consumption do not have a linear relationship (i.e. the former does not grow in direct response to the latter). Instead average well-being beyond a certain level of per capita GDP rises no further.

The levels of consumption seen in developing countries are converging on those seen in more affluent countries and combined far outstrip the planet’s ability to provide for the global population.

We desperately need to transform society from a material culture, which has failed to reduce poverty or bring significant gains in well-being to those in the developed world. The idea of a green economy, that places value on ecological goods and services and results in improved human well-being and social equity, is a relatively new one and is far from being entrenched in political and economic systems. As Jules Pretty sees it, “a shift to a green economy is inevitable. It is simply whether it occurs before or after the world becomes locked into severe climate change and other consequences of harm to natural capital.”

 

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