Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Collapse or Descent?

I am writing this from the comfort of Chestnut Hill Café, on the corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets in Lancaster. Not the most vegan-friendly establishment, in terms of food offerings, but they brew a mean coffee and graciously let me abuse their internet for hours on end. Good people.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, to share some critically important information. Second, to reflect on how that information can inform our actions here in Lancaster.

The Ecological Footprint, or I = PAT

World ecological footprint, 1960-2005, and beyond.
On the left is a graphic representation of the global ecological footprint from 1960 to 2005, with a "projection" to 2050. I put "projection" in quotation marks because this sort of thing shows as clearly as possible the perils of projecting that E.F. Schumacher talked about in Small is Beautiful. But I'll get to that in a moment. First, what is an "ecological [or eco-] footprint"? The basic equation is relatively famous: I = PAT, where I is Impact, P is Population, A is Affluence, and T is Technology. So, Impact equals Population (world pop is closing in on 7 billion as I write this) times Affluence times Technology.

You can estimate your personal eco-footprint at a website like this one*. And then, for the sake of simplicity, you can imagine the global eco-footprint to be the sum of all our individual footprints. Feel free to share the results from your personal calculations in the comments section below. When I calculated mine, using the above site, I got around three Earths. That means that, if every human lived like I did, we would need three Earths to sustainably support our population. Yeah, that sucks. I used to be at 1.5. You'd think being a vegan bus & bike commuter who almost never buys anything new would get you some eco cred, but not enough, it seems.

*Different sites produce different results. Feel free to use another if you don't like this one.

The human population now has an eco-footprint of around 1.4 Earths. The average eco-footprint for an American citizen, in 2006, was 5.3 Earths. We are, in other words, in deep shit, and digging deeper every day.

Carrying Capacity and Overshoot

In systems theory and ecology, the technical term is carrying capacity. The definition is fairly straightforward, and if you don't already know it, you can probably intuit it. Basically, every ecosystem (defined as a biological community and its physical context) has a carrying capacity. In the context of humanity, a typical measure is the amount of arable land available for cultivation (i.e., how much food can we grow?), but also includes measures of capacity to absorb pollutants, stability of the climate, availability of potable water, etc. Notice no mention of money or other economic indicators. This is a strictly physical measure. Money and economic well-being come later, after we have secured the basic necessities of survival and physical well-being. One might also be inclined to include indicators of spiritual well-being, but that's a discussion for another time.

This concept of carrying capacity, like the ecological footprint, can be expanded from an individual or ecosystem basis all the way up to the whole planet.

Once one has estimated a region's carrying capacity, one simply compares that to the analogous estimate for its inhabitants' eco-footprints, and asks the question: are we living within our means, or are we in overshoot? I've made the case that we are in overshoot, and I don't think you'll find a serious thinker anywhere who would disagree with that assessment. Most people, either unaware of this concept or unaware of its implications, assume things can continue as they have (for the past few generations) indefinitely.

Well, I'm here to tell you the implications, if you don't already know. There is really just one response a natural system has when it has gone into overshoot, and that is collapse. To be more specific, population collapse. Where once there were thousands, or millions, now there are not.

As intelligent, reflective beings, you might be inclined to say that we have other options. To the extent those options involve shiny new technologies that solve all our problems without creating new ones, I'd say you're wrong. The reasons why could and do occupy voluminous libraries and sites easily accessible online, and I encourage the intrepid reader to check some of them out (check links on right-hand side).

To the extent you believe we have other options because of our capacity to adapt intelligently, rather than our capacity to live in self-denial, I think you're right.

Collapse or Managed Descent?

Back to that graphic. It depicts our current state of overshoot at around 1.4 Earths. It then projects two possible future trends. One has overshoot expanding ruthlessly above 2.0 Earths. This line I've labeled "Pure Fantasy" because it is. That trajectory is absolutely catastrophic, as anyone with a pulse can attest to today, in the summer of 2010. The world's economies are collapsing, the climate is boiling, species are being driven to extinction at a rapidly accelerating rate, clean water is running out everywhere, the ocean is turning toxic, acidic, and anoxic and, frankly, we are simply running out of the resources we need to keep pushing that destructive envelope.

The other projection takes us back below the thin red line of our carrying capacity. There are two points I want to make about that before continuing. The first is that I may have misled you somewhat earlier, in that I didn't state that "carrying capacity" isn't some well-defined number, but rather one that fluctuates according to circumstances. In fact, it is possible for that number to rise (if, for example, we began to rebuild topsoil, that might improve our ability to raise crops). However, it is much more likely, and has in reality been the case, that the global carrying capacity has been declining for decades. For example, in the US, as measured in hectares per capita, our biocapacity has declined from around 8 in 1961 to just over 4 in 2006. This is possible because of the increasing productivity of agricultural lands, thanks to massive use of fossil fuels, and also because of importation from abroad (eroding other nation's carrying capacities in the process).

The second point is that the graphic above assumes that humans have harnessed the entire Earth (or Eaarth) to their needs and desires, leaving nothing for other species, except insofar as they are useful to us; that seems like a pretty bleak future. I would, however, argue that taking the road of "managed descent" makes that ethos impossible. The two (living within our means and yet exploiting the entire Eaarth for our own desires) seem to me mutually incompatible futures. I think managed descent absolutely requires a change of mind that makes that level of exploitation inconceivable.

So those are our choices: collapse or managed descent.

Managed Descent?

Managed descent is a deliberate, intelligent, scaling back. If we return to our equation I = PAT, we can see clearly that, if the elements of environmental impact are Population, Affluence, and Technology, then we have three clear areas of intervention. We need to reduce population. And I'm not talking about over in Africa. I mean right here, in the US, in Pennsylvania, in Lancaster. Over 20 years, the situation in the Chesapeake Bay has gotten worse and worse, and this despite improved regulations and improved agricultural practices and improved storm and wastewater management. When your "per capitas" go down, but your "capitas" are always going up, your impact still goes up. So, we need to reduce population.

We need to reduce affluence. It is simply a fact that more affluent individuals have more negative impacts. Those big homes take big energies to heat and cool and power. Those flashy flatscreen TVs take a whole lot of energy. That big lawn takes lots of gas to mow (not to mention the natural gas-based fertilizer it takes to make green, and the oil-based chemicals it takes to keep the weeds down). Before anyone freaks out, think seriously about your level of happiness in the current state. Do you need the big bills, the big taxes for those massive highways, the big headaches from working too many hours to enjoy a shrunken-down life? I love what Thoreau wrote in Walden: that it would take him more time to earn the money to pay for a carriage ride somewhere than it would take to simply walk there. In that simple idea lies real wisdom.

Finally, we need to change our technologies. I'll give a small-scale example and a large-scale one. In your life, chances are you can bike -- or even walk -- more than you do. Let's say you typically drive to a grocery store two miles away. At 12mph, you can bike there in just about 10 minutes. Driving it would take you about 6 minutes (assuming you don't have a superhighway directly connecting your driveway to the store). So, for the cost of 4 minutes, you've gotten some exercise, you've learned your neighborhood better, you've breathed some fresh air, you haven't wasted any gasoline, you've kept wear-and-tear down on your car, and you've avoided putting any pollution into the atmosphere. Good job!

Now, imagine you own a factory. You could take out a loan for a million dollars and buy the latest robotic machinery to churn our your widgets, or you could pay a couple of guys a living wage ($10 or so an hour in Lancaster, or so I hear) to do the same thing. With real unemployment over 18%, doesn't it sound ridiculous to buy "labor-saving devices"? The labor's right there, idle, worried about losing his or her home, going hungry, and living in a tent city.

This Island Lancaster

I encourage my readers (all three of them) to think about Lancaster (or wherever you live). What is its carrying capacity? Is that capacity declining or improving with time? If it's not improving, how can you help it improve?

Now think about your personal eco-footprint. What is it? If it's over 1.0, and it almost certainly is, what can you do to shrink it? Is it time you became a locavore? Do you commute far to work? Can you move closer to where you work, or work closer to where you live? Can you bike or walk or take the bus there instead of driving? Can you downsize your home? Shrink your heating and electric bills? Toss the TV, because it wastes energy and feeds you misinformation anyway? My wife and I have no TV and consistently have an electric bill under $20.

You can't downsize your family, but maybe you can adopt instead of having more children. If you want a large family, consider joining a community group (like Transition Lancaster!) and making them your adopted family.

Do you believe these things will actually improve your quality of life? I do.


Cassa said...

My guess is that you have a lot more than three readers (but I'm sure you know that). I, for one, find so much value in what you put together, so thanks!

Susan Norris said...

Ugh! I just did the eco-footprint and am using 3.8 earths... and i don't have AC, don't drive much and never fly!