Earth Overshoot & Natural Debt


Earth Overshoot Day 2010
Our Natural Accounts Run Red

Today is the official day of Earth Overshoot: the first day of the year our natural capital spending is in the red. This type of natural debt is far more destructive than its monetary counterpart (natural debt meaning debt owed of natural capital, not a debt that is natural – there is no such thing). Instead of being able to pay back this loan, we’re actually making it harder to pay our bills next year and the year after.

Overshoot is a term used often by biologists to describe a population that consumes more than the system can support. This could be a pack of grey wolves in the Northern Territories that is eating more deer than can possible be born and grow within the year. What does that mean? With less deer this year to breed, there will be less deer next year to eat. The deer the wolves eat next year will deplete their reserve even further. Eventually no deer will be around to eat and the wolves will starve.

We’re doing the same thing today with the Earth. As the Global Footprint Network puts it,

“For most of human history, humanity has been able to live off of nature’s interest – consuming resources and producing carbon dioxide at a rate lower than what the planet was able to regenerate and reabsorb each year.

But approximately three decades ago, we crossed a critical threshold, and the rate of human demand for ecological services began to outpace the rate at which nature could provide them. This gap between demand and supply – known as ecological overshoot – has grown steadily each year. It now takes one year and six months to regenerate the resources that humanity requires in one year.

The bummer here is that we can’t migrate to a new territory: there’s only one Earth. There will only ever be one Earth. One Planet. That’s how much we’ve been given, best we figure out how to use it well. We need to create a sustainable scale to our society and economy.

Gas Tank
Maxed Out: Earth Doesn't Have Give Out Credit

Overshoot is directly related to carrying capacity – and biologists know that when a population consumes more than the system can renew, this overshoot often leads to a mass die-off.  We’re already watching the most massive extinction since the dinosaurs, our biological diversity is dwindling at unheard-of rates. Perhaps this should be seen as a warning to our own existence? After all, we are part of nature.

Celebrate Earth Overshoot Day by donating your car and buying a bike, calling your congressman, writing the president, trading your oil company job for a green job, building resiliency in your local community and supporting your local economy. Have a great anti-Holiday!

See my cross-post on Post Growth and out my guest post on Green Growth Cascadia about Earth Overshoot Day. Image Credits: Global Footprint Network.

The Earth Bleeds Out

If only the words “back from whence ye came” could really have magical powers and plug the mortal wound we have inflicted upon the Gulf of Mexico (and soon her bigger cousin, the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern Coastline). Whilst our human brains convince us over and over again that we are above nature, can outsmart her, or take over her services, she shows us again and again the error in our ways. From Katrina, to Taiwan, to Haiti and many more, Mother Nature is an unrelenting and all-powerful presence in our lives. This shouldn’t be seen as an unwelcomed presence – far too often we seem to run away from nature, when we are, in fact, of nature and in nature.

I have been avoiding writing about the Gulf Disaster because it seems pretty well covered: it’s everywhere, whether you read it, watch it, or listen to it. However, I couldn’t resist promoting this incredibly moving image tool: Ifitwasmyhome.com. What would the oil disaster look like if it was centered over your home? Check it out for me here in Seattle: (Thanks to nef’s Triple Crunch Blog for first showing me this site)

Gush Forth! Oh, Mighty Earth!

Imagine this were true: the largest populated area in the Pacific Northwest would be almost entirely covered in oil, even up over the Canadian border. They’re our allies, but I can’t imagine they’d be happy with that type of sharing. All of the Olympic Rainforest and National Park would be dripping wet with crude. Lake Chelan would be filled with black gold. As far south as Centralia and stretching over the many islands of the Puget Sound – all wiped out by BP’s greed for a fossil fuel. Good-bye Orcas! good-bye Salmon! Audios watersheds, fisheries, and my beautiful hometown.

They seem completely incapable of stopping the leak (some wonder if they won’t be able to do it or it might wait until Christmas). Personally, I think it is motivation to sell your car, ride your bike, and vote for a constitutional amendment outlawing corporate personhood (had this occurred prior to 1886, the government could have liquidated BP’s assets to cover everything and thrown everyone involved in jail).

All of this is the direct result of our lust for oil. We are destroying the largest fishery in the US (something like 70% of our shellfish and 30% of all our seafood comes from the Gulf), destroying priceless natural capital. For what? BP’s giant profits. This won’t finish them unless we take them to court, and even that is doubtful to have a large, positive result within a decade. At least the local economy will get a bump in GDP while everyone rushes down there to clean it up, right?

What do you think of the developments down there?

Obama, Lead Us To Clean Energy Now!

God love the actor who stands up for the environment, but there is something a little more significant (for me at least) when if comes from Robert Redford. (Maybe because he’s one of my favorites and one of the most respectable actors in Hollywood) See his challenge to President Obama:

Way to go, Mr. Redford! Thanks to Climate Progress for introducing this video to me.

Decoupling Demystified

Vinyl Ready Art - Road Signs
Can We Separate GDP Growth And Ecological Limits?

Next time you run into a classically trained economist (happens all the time, right?) start talking with him/her about ecological limits. They might squirm a little, but probably respond as trained: with some zombie-like responses about “decoupling.” What is decoupling? Basically, it’s a concept of being able to continue growing economic output without a corresponding increase in environmental impact.

The overall idea is that improvements in production efficiency allow you to make more with less. Theoretically we can increase our efficiency and make more stuff using the same amount of resources and/or generating the same amount of pollution.

Applying this concept to renewable resources would be incredibly beneficial. We could use wood, for instance, in a more sustainable fashion if we decoupled the economic growth from resource use and did so under the ecological limits of forest regeneration.

As you might have already guessed, there are quite a few flaws with this concept. You might have also noticed that it seems at first glance to have a broad definition. In general, however, there are two types of economic decoupling: relative and absolute. The first type appears to have a cursory chance of working, the latter is fundamentally impossible.

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Growth Isn’t Possible

Growth Will Kill Us All, If The Hamster Doesn't Get Us First

The new economics foundation (nef) has released a report title Growth Isn’t Possible, which is available for free download (pdf here) or purchase in a bound copy. The low-down is simple: in order to maintain the international goal of avoiding an increase of 2°C in global temperatures from carbon emissions we must stop economic growth. Basically, economic growth will kill us if we don’t “change our economy to live within its environmental budget.”

nef figures that with a growth rate of only 3%, the global economics “carbon intensity” would need to decrease by 95% by 2050 from 2002 levels. This requires an average annual reduction of 6.5%, which is even optimistically impossible in the best of circumstances. All of the “magic bullets” in the public discourse: carbon capture, nuclear, geo-engineering, et cetera are “dangerous distractions from more human-scale solutions.”

Sure, our carbon intensity has nearly flatlined in the last few years, but we need to reverse this trend not flatten out or encourage growth. Technological efficiencies can help, but physical laws limit the amount of efficiency you can pump out of any system. Worse yet, we’ll never match growth in efficiency with even mild economic growth that our system has been designed to need. It’s simple mathematics, which neoclassical economists have never been good at in the first place.

A broader support for community-scale projects like decentralized energy systems are needed over the pipe dreams currently getting all the political attention and funding. nef’s research shows that in order to prevent runaway climate change we need to change. An economy that took into account environmental thresholds will be more likely able to not only avoid runaway climate change but provide improved human well-being in the future.

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Externalities and Valuing Non-Market Goods

A Steady State Economy will need for us to value our externalities as best we can in order to take into account every impact we have and move towards a sustainable scale. It will also require us to create policies that protect us when these externalities cannot, or should not, be factored into market forces.


Externalities With Value
Externalities With Value

Our accepted model provides us with a free market – one that is omniscient and omnipresent – that allocates resources, goods and services. Neoclassical economists generally assume that when a consumer (that’s you – got to love that label, huh?) makes a decision, he/she does so with all the information required.

When you buy those pants, neoclassical economists assume that you take into account not only the price, but the material the pants are made from, its scarcity, environmental damage, labor associated with its creation, et cetera when you decide to purchase them. In this way the market is perfect at managing scarcity. We all know that reality is far from this picture, however; consumers make decisions with limited information and often without consideration of the far-reaching effects and “externalities.”

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Uneconomic Growth

“That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin”
John Ruskin

Herman Daly is often given credit for pioneering the term “Uneconomic Growth.”  It is a key term in ecological economics and Daly has given us numerous works on the subject. What is uneconomic growth? It is closely related to the optimal or sustainable scale of our economy.

When social or environment costs become larger than the benefits of more production and consumption growth is no longer economic. As Daly and Farley put it in their textbook Ecological Economics uneconomic growth happens when continued growth “costs us more than it is worth. A situation in which further expansion entails lost ecosystem services that are worth more than the extra production benefits of the expanded economy.”

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Natural vs Man-Made Capital

As we continue to fuel our all-important economic growth we begin to realize more and more that it has done all the good it can for us. In fact, it has started to become uneconomic growth; a growth that actually costs us natural capital (resources) and man-made capital (products). The costs of growth now outweigh the benefits.

Today’s neoclassical economists will have you believe that reduction of natural capital (resources) can be replaced with man-made capital. However, this is not true because in order to create man-made capital you require natural capital. Therefore, natural capital should be maintained as it is the limiting factor for man-made capital.

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