"World on the Edge is brilliant. Author Lester Brown is one of humanity's greatest voices for the environment. In this volume, he presents the reader with a clear prescription for restoring sanity to our relationship with the biosphere. Highest recommendation." —Geoffrey Holland, The Hydrogen Age
Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Introduction
If we continue with business as usual—Plan A—the troubles described in the preceding five chapters will worsen. Plan A is failing environmentally and, as a result, it will eventually fail economically. The environmental bubble economy created by overdrawing the earth's natural assets will eventually burst unless we deflate it.
As noted in Chapter 1, the food bubble economy is based on the unsustainable use of groundwater and of cropland. If we were to cease overpumping in order to stabilize water tables, the world grain harvest would drop sharply. No one knows by precisely how much, but Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project estimated a decade ago that the world was overpumping its aquifers by 160 billion tons of water a year. This is equal to 160 million tons of grain, or 8 percent of the world grain harvest. In effect, 8 percent of the world's people—some 500 million people—are fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water.1
Global assessments such as Postel's are difficult partly because the extent of overpumping varies widely by country. A World Bank report indicates that the pumping of water in Yemen's Sana'a Basin is four times the rate of recharge. In India, some analysts think that pumping may be nearly double the rate of recharge. In Saudi Arabia and the southern Great Plains of the United States, where pumping is from fossil aquifers, virtually all pumping is overpumping since there is little or no recharge. Once a fossil aquifer is depleted, pumping ends.2
A similar situation exists with cropland. To produce the current grain harvest of nearly 1.9 billion tons, many farmers are tilling land that is too steeply sloping or too dry to sustain cultivation. In some countries, this share of cropland is negligible; in others, it is large. For the world, it could easily be 10 percent. Kazakhstan, an extreme case, has abandoned half of its grainland since 1980. The United States and China, the world's largest grain producers, are returning highly erodible cropland to grass or planting it to trees before it becomes wasteland. In each country, roughly one tenth of cropland is going into grass and trees. The United States has largely completed its land use conversion. China is just getting under way.3
With oceanic fisheries, long the world's leading protein source, no one knows exactly how much the catch exceeds the sustainable yield. In its State of the World's Fisheries annual report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 75 percent of all fisheries are fished at or beyond capacity, some to the point of collapse. A Canadian study based on 10 years of painstaking research, which was published in Nature in May 2003, reports that 90 percent of world stocks of the larger predatory species, including cod, halibut, tuna, swordfish, and marlin, disappeared over the last half-century. No one knows the extent of overfishing, but like overpumping aquifers, it is a practice designed to expand food production in the short term that will almost certainly lead to a decline over the long term.4
Although rangeland deterioration does not get much media attention, overgrazing is at least as common as overfishing. Data on the extent of overgrazing by country are hard to find. We do know that the demands of the world's 3.1 billion cattle, sheep, and goats are overwhelming the sustainable forage yields of rangelands. In China, where the government is asking its pastoralists to voluntarily reduce their flocks of sheep and goats by 40 percent as it tries to halt advancing deserts, we at least get a hint of the perceived extent of overgrazing.5
With carbon emissions, we have a better sense of the excess. Of the 6.5 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from fossil fuel burning, roughly half is fixed by nature. The other half accumulates in the atmosphere, feeding the greenhouse effect. In this case, carbon emissions are now double nature's carbon-fixing capacity.6
In sum, no one knows exactly the extent of our excessive claims on the earth in this bubble economy. The most sophisticated effort to calculate this, the one by Mathis Wackernagel and his team, estimates that in 1999 our claims on the earth exceeded its regenerative capacity by 20 percent. If this overdraft is rising 1 percent a year, as seems likely, then by 2003 it was 24 percent. As we consume the earth's natural capital, the earth's capacity to sustain us is decreasing. We are a species out of control, setting in motion processes we do not understand with consequences that we cannot foresee.7
1. Sandra Postel, Pillar of Sand (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 80; population from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: February 2003).
2. Christopher Ward, The Political Economy of Irrigation Water Pricing in Yemen (Sana'a, Yemen: World Bank, November 1998); David Seckler, David Molden, and Randolph Barker, "Water Scarcity in the Twenty-First Century," Water Brief 1 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 1999).
3. Grain from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, updated 13 May 2003; cropland conversion from USDA, Farm Service Agency Online, "History of the CRP," The Conservation Reserve Program, at www.fsa.usda.gov/dafp/cepd/12logo cv.htm; Xu Jintao, Eugenia Katsigris, and Thomas A. White, Implementing the Natural Forest Protection Program: Lessons and Policy Recommendations (Beijing: China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, October 2002).
4. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2002 (Rome: 2002), p. 23; Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, "Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities," Nature, 15 May 2003.
5. FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database, at apps.fao.org, livestock data updated 9 January 2003; China flock reduction from U.S. Embassy, Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia (Beijing: May 2001).
6. 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, U.S. Department of Energy, 2002); Jonathan Shaw, "The Great Global Experiment," Harvard Magazine, November-December 2002, pp. 34-43, 87-90.
7. Mathis Wackernagel et al., "Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of Human Economy," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 9 July 2002, p. 9266-71.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute