- Global ecological constraint is not a ludicrous conception. And yes, there is a biological and physical limit to economic expansion.
- Feeding the world’s 7.7 billion now threatens vital water, soil, land, vegetation and biodiversity resources.
The ice caps are melting, fires are raging, sea levels are rising, biodiversity is in decline. How long will we – ordinary citizens, elected leaders, business executives and faith leaders – ignore the warning signs?
All of mankind, as well as other living organisms, depend completely on the delicate and complex balance of the Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide. These services include food, fibre, water, climate regulation, disease regulation and nutrient cycling. But over the past 65 years, we have transformed ecosystems dramatically, and in most cases irreversibly.
While the scale of human transformation on the Earth’s resources has generated significant gains, measured in GDP, these changes have wrought large scale, irreversible changes in the capacity of ecosystems to provide vital ecological services to current, and certainly future generations.
At every critical juncture, scientists have pleaded for deep, proactive, societal innovation through cultural, political, institutional and technological transformation. Such transformations are critical to averting a catastrophic acceleration of the ecological footprint of mankind beyond the planet’s carrying capacity.
The planet’s carrying capacity denotes the planet’s physical limits with respect to harvestable natural resources such as fisheries, forests, soils, water and critical elements of biodiversity like pollinators. Another critical physical limit is the finite capacity of the planet to absorb greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and industry, which has implications on the capacity of the planet’s capacity to regulate climate.
We can no longer make arguments solely on the account that conservation of ecological systems somehow inflicts a penalty on the economy, thus undermining national GDP growth.
Nearly 48 years ago, four young scientists wrote a book called Limits to Growth. The authors suggested that the end of growth – measured by incremental gains in human wellbeing because of appropriation of the planet’s physical resources – would occur in 2022 or 50 years after they published their findings.
There is compelling data to show that the world is in overshoot mode. A seminal paper published in 2009 by Johan Rockstrom and colleagues confirms that human pressures on the planet have reached proportions where abrupt environmental change or overshoot cannot be discounted. Rockstrom identifies nine planetary boundaries – such as climate, rate of biodiversity loss, fresh water, land systems change –within which we expect that humanity can operate safely.
Global ecological constraint is not a ludicrous conception. And yes, there is a biological and physical limit to economic expansion. Our unbridled appetite for fossil fuels has begotten the climate crisis. Feeding the world’s 7.7 billion now threatens vital water, soil, land, vegetation and biodiversity resources.
The ecological limits and catastrophic implications they portend demand decisive, coordinated and collective global action. We can no longer make arguments solely on the account that conservation of ecological systems somehow inflicts a penalty on the economy, thus undermining national GDP growth.
The 2020s must be the decade of ecological recalibration. We must reset our collective ecological footprint; the scale of land resources needed to produce food, fibre and fuel and the capacity of atmospheric resources to absorb anthropogenic greenhouse gases.
It is time to stop the perilous march to the precipice. We must address the twin challenges of global warming and the calamitous decline of biodiversity.
The views expressed are the writer’s own.