There are various versions of this World Wildlife Fund chart showing the capacity of the Earth’s natural environment (soil, air, water, forests, minerals, energy resources, etc.) to support human life. They all tell a similar story.
Before WWII, humans were using about half the Earth’s available natural resources (the “biocapacity” of the planet) to support our various activities. Just 30 years on, we were consuming our full planet's worth of resources and had achieved a sort of breakeven steady state with respect to the Earth’s carrying capacity. In accounting terms there was no profit (gain) and no loss of biocapacity.
Since the 1970s, our consumption has continued to increase and we now require more than 1.5 times the Earth’s biocapacity to support our human activities. Our planet’s biocapacity income statement is operating in deficit and we are depleting the Earth’s natural asset’s savings account to fund our lifestyle.
Even more alarming is that fact that if all economies were placing the same burden on natural assets as the US economy, we would need the equivalent of 5 times the Earth’s biocapacity to be at steady state. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other developing countries are successfully emulating the economic success of North America and Europe, and as they do, the depletion of Earth’s biocapacity will accelerate.
My career has been about trying to reduce the human ecological footprint by focusing on three of the biggest causes of biocapacity depletion: industrial food systems, energy from non-renewable sources and failure to recycle waste as resources. I now know that efforts like mine will fail unless we create a new economic system that recognizes the cost to natural assets of the current non-sustainable economic system. This is the reason I joined the board of the New Economics Institute. NEI believes:
“We are at a turning point in history. Rising temperatures are now recognized as a sign of our planet in crisis. Inequities between rich and poor, North and South, grow ever deeper. The global economy has failed in its promise to produce and deliver basic goods in an efficient manner for an expanding population, leaving increasing numbers in abject poverty. The environmental crisis, the equity crisis, and the crisis of distributed production all have their roots in the current economic system, with implications for our culture, for our society, and for our health and well-being. What would an economy built on principles of fairness and sustainability look like? How do we model it; where is it emerging; how do we collectively strategize to fully implement it? These are the pressing questions of our time.”
On June 8-10, the New Economics Institute is hosting a conference entitled "Strategies for a New Economy," at Bard College on the Hudson River in New York State. Our purpose is to bring together what are often diverse and scattered efforts to reshape our economic system, place them under one tent, and raise the flag to announce that transitioning to a new economy will mean engaging politicians, researchers, media, educators, citizen activists, business leaders, financial experts, scientists, union workers, cultural leaders, advocates for the disenfranchised, and youth—all working together to achieve a common goal.
And speaking of youth, this article by Andrew Revkin for the New York Times describes some of the reasons young people are calling for a new economy.