“[Brown’s] ability to make a complicated subject accessible to the general reader is remarkable...” –Katherine Salant, Washington Post
Chapter 1. A Planet under Stress: Introduction
As world population has doubled and as the global economy has expanded sevenfold over the last half-century, our claims on the earth have become excessive. We are asking more of the earth than it can give on an ongoing basis, creating a bubble economy.
We are cutting trees faster than they can regenerate, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, overpumping aquifers, and draining rivers dry. On our cropland, soil erosion exceeds new soil formation, slowly depriving the soil of its inherent fertility. We are taking fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce.
We are releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect. As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, so does the earth's temperature. Habitat destruction and climate change are destroying plant and animal species far faster than new species can evolve, launching the first mass extinction since the one that eradicated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Throughout history, humans have lived on the earth's sustainable yield—the interest from its natural endowment. But now we are consuming the endowment itself. In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principal along with interest in the short run, but in the long run it leads to bankruptcy.
In 2002, a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel, an analyst at Redefining Progress, concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. Their study, published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, estimated that our demands in 1999 exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. We are satisfying our excessive demands by consuming the earth's natural assets, in effect creating a global bubble economy.1
Bubble economies are not new. American investors got an up-close view of this when the bubble in high-tech stocks burst in 2000 and the NASDAQ, an indicator of the value of these stocks, declined by some 75 percent. Japan had a similar experience in 1989 when the real estate bubble burst, depreciating stock and real estate assets by 60 percent. The bad-debt fallout and other effects of this collapse have left the once-dynamic Japanese economy dead in the water ever since.2
The bursting of these two bubbles affected primarily people living in the United States and Japan, but the global bubble economy that is based on the overconsumption of the earth's natural capital assets will affect the entire world. When the food bubble economy, inflated by the overpumping of aquifers, bursts, it will raise food prices worldwide. The challenge for our generation is to deflate the economic bubble before it bursts.
Unfortunately, since September 11, 2001, political leaders, diplomats, and the media worldwide have been preoccupied with terrorism and, more recently, the invasion of Iraq. Terrorism is certainly a matter of concern, but if it diverts us from the environmental trends that are undermining our future until it is too late to reverse them, Osama Bin Laden and his followers will have achieved their goal of bringing down western civilization in a way they could not have imagined.
In February 2003, U.N. demographers made an announcement that was in some ways more shocking than the September 11th attack: the worldwide rise in life expectancy has been dramatically reversed for a large segment of humanity—the 700 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa. The HIV epidemic has reduced life expectancy among this region's people from 62 to 47 years. The epidemic may soon claim more lives than all the wars of the twentieth century. If this teaches us anything, it is the high cost of neglecting newly emerging threats.3
The HIV epidemic is not the only emerging mega-threat. Numerous countries are feeding their growing populations by overpumping their aquifers—a measure that virtually guarantees a future drop in food production when the aquifers are depleted. In effect, these countries are creating a food bubble economy—one where food production is artificially inflated by the unsustainable use of groundwater.
Another mega-threat—climate change—is not getting the attention it deserves from most governments, particularly that of the United States, the country responsible for one fourth of all carbon emissions. Washington wants to wait until all the evidence on climate change is in, by which time it will be too late to prevent a wholesale warming of the planet. Just as governments in Africa watched HIV infection rates rise and did little about it, the United States is watching atmospheric CO2 levels rise and doing little to check the increase.4
Other mega-threats being neglected include eroding soils and expanding deserts, which are threatening the livelihood and food supply of hundreds of millions of the world's people. These issues do not even appear on the radar screen of many national governments.
Thus far, most of the environmental damage has been local: the death of the Aral Sea, the burning rainforests of Indonesia, the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery, the melting of the glaciers that supply Andean cities with water, the dust bowl forming in northwestern China, and the depletion of the U.S. Great Plains aquifer. But as these local environmental events expand and multiply, they will progressively weaken the global economy, bringing closer the day when the economic bubble will burst.5
1. Mathis Wackernagel et al., "Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 9 July 2002, pp. 9266-71.
2. Steven Pearlstein, "How the Bubble Economy Burst," Washington Post, 13 November 2002; Thomas F. Cargill, Michael M. Hutchinson, and Takatoshi Ito, The Political Economy of Japanese Monetary Policy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997).
3. United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: February 2003); Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Report on The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic 2002 (Geneva, July 2002), p. 44.
4. G. Marland, T. A. Boden, and R. J. Andres, "Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions," in Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2002).
5. U.N. Environment Programme, Afghanistan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment (Geneva: 2003), p. 60; Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) and Global Forest Watch (GFW), The State of the Forest: Indonesia (Bogor, Indonesia, and Washington, DC: 2002), p. xii; Canadian cod fishery from Clyde H. Farnsworth, "Cod are Almost Gone and a Culture Could Follow," New York Times, 28 May 1994; melting glaciers in Andean region from Lonnie G. Thompson, "Disappearing Glaciers Evidence of a Rapidly Changing Earth," American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting proceedings, San Francisco, CA, February 2001; United Nations, "China's Experience With Calamitous Sand-Dust Storms," in Yang Youlin, Victor Squires, and Lu Qi, eds., Global Alarm Dust and Sandstorms from the World's Drylands (Bangkok: Secretariat of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, September 2002), pp. 215-53; U.S. aquifer depletion from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators 2000 (Washington, DC: February 2000), chapter 2.1, p. 6.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute