We are consuming our planet.
The 2004 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) confirmed that our society has measurably altered global ecosystems over the last 50 years. These changes have brought undeniable economic gains to a minority but were achieved at a growing ecological cost.
According to calculations based on humanity’s ecological footprint, we are using 135 percent of the resources that planet Earth generated in 2011. In other words, the global community currently uses the bio-capacity of 1.35 planets to satisfy current global demand. This 35 percent overshoot indicates that we are using natural capital faster than it can replenish itself.
Further, the ecological boundaries we are crossing are closely linked to one another; crossing one boundary may shift others and even cause a series of collapses, resulting in runaway feedback events on a planetary scale. Right now, we simply don’t know exactly how severe or abrupt these shifts can or will be, but chances are we may not possess the capability to take corrective measures once they commence.
Such doom and gloom! It’s little wonder we suffer from green fatigue which, I might venture, is a distinctly first-world problem — along with obesity, sitting in traffic jams and worrying about insurance premiums (to name but a few of our misfortunes).
Many of us — particularly those who enjoyed the privilege of a well-educated and reasonably wealthy upbringing — grew up in a society where environmental issues were in the forefront of our minds. Chances are that readers of this post are very much at the pinnacle of the pyramid, a relatively small group of people who enjoy a measure of financial stability. At no other point in history has such a society had so many resources at its disposal. We would be the envy of Roman emperors and Persian Kings.
A few of us try our best to ease our collective guilt. We dutifully recycle some of our waste products. We cycle to work if we can. Some of us may even attend protests to urge global leaders to do something about Bengal tigers — or whichever furry, wide-eyed species we think deserves particular attention over a given week.
However, the supreme irony is that our high-consumption lifestyles provide the opportunity for us to worry about the environment in the first place. After all, we initially purchased the products we partially recycle. The metals and plastics in our cheap bicycles are supplied by a massive industrial complex, assembled in sweatshops in some distant land whose name we can’t reliably pronounce. We drive cars — or even catch flights to distant countries in order to voice our displeasure.
We try to make things better — but it will never be enough. Ultimately, very few of us are willing to make changes to our daily lives that would measurably preserve our environment. Many of us secretly want to live like Americans in Florida, circa 1955 (and with the Internet thrown in, if you please).
At least the financially well off have the opportunity to do something about it. As a South African, I see poverty everywhere I look. Poor people have far more important things to do than worry about the aforementioned Bengal tigers, or a young penguin snarled up in a piece of plastic on the other side of the globe. When you’re poor, your priorities are far, far simpler. Chances are you don’t have the time or opportunity to ponder environmental issues, or indeed even read this blog post — at least not when your primary concerns constantly revolve around securing food and shelter for the next twenty four hours. Maslow would have understood.
However, this does not mean that our 4 billion neighbours at the bottom of the social pyramid can afford to ignore environmental issues. On the contrary, they have a vested interest in curbing overpopulation, biodiversity preservation, halting soil erosion, preventing overfishing, and combating air pollution. Why? Because when the environmental changes begin to bite, the poorest among us will be the first to suffer from the effects. For a time, richer folk like us can always fly away like migrating birds — but sooner or later we have to come back down to Earth.
In the end our backgrounds are largely irrelevant with regards to doing our part for the environment. Our planet is distressingly small. It’s the only one we have. In my mind, the most important first step in combating our problems is rethinking education, which is pretty much what 50+20 is all about. We need to change mindsets, create globally responsible leadership, get people from all walks of life to think long term, help businesses see the larger picture — and bring them all together to discuss and resolve the problems we currently face. We can’t do it alone.
Part of the text was derived from the 50+20 Agenda, which will be launched at the UN PRME 3rd Global Forum during the RIO+20 summit.