Thursday, April 9, 2015

What's eating Dennis Meadows?

We've to find our way
back the garden
      -Joni Mitchell
And I can't find my way home
   - Blind Faith
Control yourself
Take only what you need
    -MG MT  

      I've been thinking about Dennis Meadows speech at the Smithsonian on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Limits to Growth.    Among the speakers he was the most pessimistic.  Why was that?  Was he just worn out and frustrated?  Or did he see things from a different perspective?.
      One thing I thought I heard him say, was that changes in technology and lifestyle couldn't tun things around, that they would be swamped by increasing population.  Why would he say that?  
    This lead me to take another look at the Footprint analysis, which I assume everyone is familiar with. .   Along the way I ran into a very interesting paper put out by Population   The author creates an excellent way of looking at the population /affluence problem,
           As we know, the ecological impact is a function of both population an affluence.  Put another way, what is "sustainable" lifestyle ( affluence)  for a small population is not the same as for a large population.   Similarly a a lower standard of living would allow a larger population to be sustainable  in a given planetary limit.  The footprint folks say  this:  ( from Living Planet Report 2014)

"For example, if all people on the planet had the Footprint
of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets. If we
lived the lifestyle of a typical resident of the US, we would need 3.9
planets. The figure for a typical resident of Slovakia or South Korea
would be 2 or 2.5 planets respectively, while a typical resident of
South Africa or Argentina would need 1.4 or 1.5 planets respectively. 

  One way to look at this is to plot a graph of population versus per capita use of resources.  As the chart below shows the  "sustainability limit" can be shown as a curve.  If you are above the curve, you are in overshoot, if below, sustainable..    Note that is you are in overshoot, you can reach sustainability by either reducing population, or reducing per capita use of resources, or both.  

Inline image 1

      If you have a growing population.,   "living sustainably" is a moving target.  As population increases, the available per capita biocapacity shrinks.   This moving target helps explain why back  when Limits to Growth came out, we could say  "We can have sustainable development , and we can all live sustain ably at the lifestyle of Europeans"     This  may have been true in the 1970's , but is no longer true.   In fact, the only countries that are "sustainable" , are also so poor that they fail to meet minumum UN standards. The footprint network notes:  

   " For a country to achieve globally sustainable development, it must
have a per capita Ecological Footprint smaller than the per capita
biocapacity available on the planet, while maintaining a decent
standard of living. The former means a per capita Footprint lower
than 1.7 gha – the maximum that could be replicated worldwide
without resulting in global overshoot. The latter can be defined
as a score of 0.71 or above on the UN inequality-adjusted Human
Development Index (IHDI). Currently, no country meets both of
these criteria."  

(This was not always the case.  About ten years ago (i can't fix it precisely) , when the world population was only 6.5 billion, , one country met both criteria.  That country was Cuba.    It's average footprint was 1.8 gha.   The Cubans are no longer sustainable.  Was this because the Cubans become more profligate in their energy use?    Probably not.  The world population increased to 7 billion, and the sustainability bar was raised.  Now, you have to get by on 1.7 order to be sustainable)

While the footprint network offers many useful ideas for reducing footprint, to date the trend has gone the other way.  This continued  overshoot can be shown in this graph from here   

Inline image 1


This graph also shows that the main driver of overshoot has changed from lifestyle to increasing population.   (This report is dated 2006 , but the latest figures confirm this trend see here .)

"Until 1990, the path into unsustainability was due to a combination of increasing ecological footprint and population. After 1990, however, population increase became the driver towards further unsustainability; the path stops moving to the right and progresses almost parallel to the population axis. This appears to be because increases in population have been predominantly in poor countries with low footprints. So the average footprint is being held steady due to low-end weighting. But because the world population continues to increase, the overall footprint becomes less sustainable."

        Population continues to grow, albeit at a slower and slower rate.  In the short term, it is forecast to reach 8-12 billion by 2050.     As the graph indicates, such increases, make it very difficult to get us out of overshoot.

        At some point, of course, the population gets so large that it may not be possible to provide citizens with a minimum UN human development index , within sustainable limits.   At that point, continued overshoot may not be  not merely optional, but it  become inevitable.  

      Perhaps that's what's eating Dennis Maedows.



PS   I went over to Footprint Calculator to see how hard it would be to be sustainable.  It's an interesting exercise, and everyone should try it.  The first time thorugh, I had a typical American score.  So I started running scerios.  What if i never flew, if I gave up meat?   Even if I were to stop flying, driving, and eating meat, I would still be using three times the allowable amounts!    If fact there is no way for a US citizen to be sustainable, thanks to all of the shared infrastructure - hospitals, libraries, roads, police , military.  As the footprint folks explain:

"Why can’t I get my Footprint score within the means of one planet?
 A person’s Ecological Footprint includes both personal and societal impacts. The Footprint associated with food, mobility, and goods is easier for you to directly influence through lifestyle choices (eating less meat, driving less, etc). However a person’s Footprint also includes societal impacts or “services”, such as government assistance, roads and infrastructure, public services, and the military of the country that they live in. All citizens of the country are allocated their share of these societal impacts.
The Footprint of these societal impacts (i.e. the “services” category of your Footprint score) does not vary, and therefore in some nations it is not possible to reduce your Footprint to below one planet.
This is why, if we want to achieve sustainability, we need to focus on two things: both our own lifestyle as well as influencing our governments. Even with significant changes in individual behavior, a large portion of a personal Footprint comes from the way national infrastructure is designed, goods are produced, and government and public services operate.
In order to allow their citizens to achieve a lifestyle that fits within one planet, governments need to dramatically improve the efficiency of the built environment and invest in renewable energy and smart land-use planning.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home