Fueled by technological innovations and globalization, in the last two decades the world’s economic growth has lifted more than 660 million people out of poverty and has raised the income level of millions more.
However, such growth has too often come at the expense of the environment. As the world population has tripled and the global economy expanded tenfold over the past 60 years, our demands on planet earth have become excessive.
We have been cutting forest trees faster than they can regenerate, over-grazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, over-pumping aquifers, and draining rivers dry.
On our agricultural lands, soil erosion exceeds new soil formation, gradually depriving the soil of its inherent fertility. We have been catching fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce, bringing about over-fishing in most parts of the world’s seas and oceans.
We have been discharging pollutants into the environment at a greater level than its assimilative capacity, resulting in widespread water pollution.
We have also been emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them, creating a greenhouse effect and global warming.
As a corollary of this carbon-fixing deficit, atmospheric CO2 concentration climbed from 316 ppm (parts per million) in 1959, when official measurement began, to 383 ppm in 2007. Conversion of forests, mangroves, coral reefs and other natural ecosystems into man-made ecosystems (e.g. settlements, agricultural land, industrial estates and infrastructure) combined with global climate change have destroyed plant and animal species far faster than new species can evolve, launching the first mass extinction since the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Global warming and its concomitant impacts including rising sea levels, extreme weather, prolonged drought and flooding, heat waves and outbreaks of diseases will reduce our earth’s sustainable capacity to produce food, energy and other natural resources as well as to assimilate various wastes.
For example, a joint report by the FAO and OECD published recently reveals that the growth of global agricultural production is projected to slow in the coming decade, from 2.1 percent a year in the last decade to 1.5 percent annually from 2013 to 2022.
In summary, throughout history, humans have lived on the earth’s sustainable yield — the interest from its natural endowment.
But since the early 1990s we have been consuming the endowment itself. In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principal along with interest in the short run, but in the long run it leads to bankruptcy.
Actually humanity’s collective demand first exceeded the earth’s sustainable capacity in 1980, and in 1999 surpassed that capacity by 20 percent (US National Academy of Sciences, 2002).
In other words, humanity has been satisfying its excessive demands by consuming the earth’s natural assets, in effect creating a global bubble economy.
From an ecological and economic perspective, the US financial crisis in 2008, the economic crisis that has hit Europe since 2010, and the ongoing global economic slowdown are believed to be indicators that human demand for natural resources and environmental services has exceeded our earth’s carrying capacity.
Moreover, despite the gains from the world’s economic growth, 1.3 billion people still do not have access to electricity, 2.6 billion still have no access to sanitation, 900 million lack safe and clean drinking water, and 1.5 billion still live below the extreme poverty line (US$ 1.5/person/day) (World Bank, 2012).
This means that such economic growth has not been inclusive enough. Our growth patterns are currently not just unsustainable, they are also deeply inefficient and socially unjust.
Our challenge then is how to feed the rapidly growing population of the world, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, to provide them with decent jobs and to bring 1.5 billion people out of poverty in an increasingly warming world? To meet such a fundamental humanitarian challenge, five courses of action must be taken and quickly.
As the rate of natural resource exploitation, GHG emissions and waste discharged into the environment is determined by population size and standard of living, the first action must be to stabilize the world’s population at 10 billion people by 2100.
According to a study conducted by Harvard University (2000), with an average income of $8,000 per person, our planet may be able to support a comfortable life for about 10 billion people.
Second, because the gap between rich and poor is so huge and has been widening, both within countries and between developed and developing countries, in the last two decades, rich citizens of the world must act responsibly with respect to environmental protection and distribution of welfare.
In practice global society must change its lifestyle, consumption and production patterns from those which are greedy, consumerist and wasteful into more green patterns.
It is noteworthy that, according to research on happiness, in countries with average incomes of between $10,000 and $15,000 per capita, further growth does not translate into greater well-being for their citizens (Layard, 2005).
Third, we have to change conventional economic growth into green growth. That is growth which is efficient in its use of natural resources; clean in that it minimizes pollution, GHG emissions, and other negative environmental impacts; and resilient in that it accounts for natural hazards including global warming and the role of environmental management as well as natural capital in preventing physical disasters.
In addition, such an economic growth has to be inclusive, ensuring that the economic pie of a country or the world is distributed to all citizens on a fair basis.
Fourth, green economic growth should be generated by the application of green technologies in every aspect of human life, particularly in the mining, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation sectors. Green technologies include zero-waste manufacturing, renewable energy and organic agriculture.
Finally, institutional arrangements, market mechanisms and government policies should be conducive for the implementation of such a low-carbon, resource-efficient and sustainable economy.
Let us not demand more of the earth, but let us do more with what earth provides!