Imperiling People, Posterity, and the Planet

Worried about the fate of the Euro? The student loan crisis? Unemployment? The federal deficit? Here's something we can all worry about: The latest Living Planet Report, published by the Global Footprint Network and the World Wildlife Fund, indicates that humanity is now consuming resources at a pace that is 52 percent faster than what the Earth can renew. And that doesn't take into account the rate at which we are depleting non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, and metals.

Consumed, as most of us are, by our personal finances and challenges, we fail to take note that humanity is now over-consuming resources and imperiling -- in the process -- people, posterity and the planet. That's understandable. When you are up to your eyeballs in work or debt, it's hard to see the big picture.

But we ignore the big picture at our peril.

Three thousand scientists and experts meeting in London earlier this year issued a declaration warning of "catastrophic consequences" for human civilization unless we take steps to reduce the over-consumption of Earth's resources. England's prestigious Royal Society subsequently released a report on "People and the Planet," which reached a similar conclusion. Sir John Sulston, the Nobel Prize laureate who led the team of scientists working on the report, warned of a possible "downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills."

These warnings are not new. John Beddington, the U.K.'s chief science adviser, three years ago gave a speech in which he warned that population growth, climate change, and the world's rising demand for food, energy, and water constituted a "perfect storm" that could destabilize the world by 2030, or sooner.

Last year, Jeremy Grantham, a top financial analyst and the co-founder of GMO, one of the world's largest investment management funds, wrote a newsletter in which he warned that we have entered an era of resource scarcity that will precipitate periodic shortages and cause commodity prices for food, minerals, and metals to trend ever higher in the long term.

Most of us are oblivious to humanity's impact on the world, and that is particularly true with respect to our impact on other living creatures. This week's Living Planet report indicates that since the 1970's there's been a 30 percent loss in biodiversity on average, and that the loss in tropical species is twice as high. Wetlands, forests, reefs, and savannahs are all falling victim to human encroachment.

But as world population grows and consumption levels expand, it will get harder to ignore humanity's impact on planetary resources. The excessive demands that we are putting on the planet will inevitably lead to acute water shortages, a chronic food crisis, and rising prices for energy, metals, and minerals. Indeed, it's already happening. In the last five years, we already endured two global food crises, and we're just another bout of severe weather away from a third one. And soon, if not already, rising prices for fuel, minerals and metals will begin to act as a break on the world's economic accelerator. High oil prices almost certainly contributed to the severity of the Great Recession, and they have, in all likelihood, slowed the pace of recovery.

Challenges abound. In the next few decades, severe water scarcity in the Middle East and some parts of Asia could lead to humanitarian crises and chronic hardship, and set back our efforts to eradicate hunger and severe poverty. And then there's the impact of climate change. A growing number of scientists believe that the increased incidence of drought and flooding that we are seeing is attributable to the accumulating levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. If so, the worst is yet to come.

According to the Living Planet report, humanity has been in ecological "overshoot" for over three decades. The human trajectory of expanding population and rising consumption is, by almost any measure, unsustainable.

No one should diminish the importance of what happens to the Euro, the student loan crisis, or our current economic malaise, but long after these problems are solved we will still be wrestling with the challenges posed by an overcrowded, over-exploited, over-heated, over-consuming world. Those challenges are not insurmountable. Not yet. There are many relatively inexpensive steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions, preserve biodiversity, conserve water, boost food production, and prevent unwanted pregnancies. Time, however, is running short, our options are narrowing, and the cost of delay is rising.