The State of the Planet – Just how bad is it?

Scientists tell us that the Earth has been in existence for 3.5 billion years, yet it is only over the last 100 years – a mere blip on the chart – that man’s impact has been really felt. When we look at the loss and damage to the natural environment, the using of non-renewable resources, and the strain being put on the Earth’s eco-system, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something has to break.

Many people in the Western world live in a bubble, enjoying the good life, with their flat-screen TVs, SUVs and comfortable homes and lifestyles. The reality is that most of the world’s 7 billion population struggle, and in many cases, that struggle is getting worse rather than better.

Are we stupid?

Recently, a British documentary maker, Franny Armstrong, took the subject of oil – man’s dependence on it and the effects of burning it on the atmosphere and climate – and turned it into a film that ideally should be watched by everybody on this planet. “The Age of Stupid” tells the story of man today as viewed through the eyes of one of the last people on Earth in 50 years time, looking back and asking why, despite the signs, we were so stupid and “did not save ourselves.”

Over the last 20 years, there have been a rush of documentaries and books warning of the threat to man and to the planet if we carry on along the road we are now traveling. Often, some of these productions are dismissed as alarmist. We are told by governments that there are answers to the crises we face – energy, food, pollution, population – and that technology will come to our rescue.

The Age of Stupid (full-length documentary – Be patient, needs time to buffer)

There is little doubt that the innovations and developments carried out over the last hundred years have on occasion been revolutionary. Landing on the moon, developing vaccines against disease, and developing a “green” agricultural revolution, show man’s potential. But with the heavy consumption of resources and devastation taking place on a finite planet, there is little doubt that man, sooner or later, is headed for a crash unless drastic changes are made in our behavior.

So just how bad is the state of our planet?

As the Worldwatch Institute and TreeHugger website make clear, the root of the planet’s environmental problems – climate change, biodiversity loss, natural overconsumption – is consumerism. There are simply not enough resources on the planet to extend what is considered a normal, even essential, level of material consumption in wealthy nations to a planet with 7 billion and growing people.

As TreeHugger points out, resource use is increasing faster than population. Even accounting for population growth, from 1960 to 2006 the per capita consumption of natural resources globally tripled. In accomplishing this, metal production grew six times, oil consumption eight times, natural gas use 14 times. The average European uses some 43 kilos of natural resources daily, while the average US resident more than doubles that at 88 kilograms. Even accounting for the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population consumes far, far less than this, natural resources and ecosystem services equal to 1.3 planets are consumed by humans.

Developing world makes the mistakes of the Developed world

But who is really using up these resources? Dividing up responsibility for that over-consumption, and translating it into greenhouse gases, it can be seen that some 500 million people (about 7% of world population) are responsible for 50% of global CO2 emissions, with 3 billion of other people on the planet responsible for just 6%. In terms of goods and services, in 2006 the United States accounted for 32% of global expenditures with just 5% of the world population.

What we have to keep in mind is that the so-called developing world is trying to catch up with the so-called developed world. India and China, with large populations, are following the well-beaten Western consumerist path. As one cheap price Indian flight company director was quoted as saying, he would like to see every Indian be able to fly. Car maker Tata is trying to get every Indian family to buy their new, cheap car. Who is to say that these people should not have the opportunity to fly or own a car?

Using Worldwatch’s calculations, only 1.4 billion people on this planet could sustainably consume like the United States. Even if everyone consumed natural resources like the average person in Jordan or Thailand, the planet still could not support current and projected populations without continued and worsening environmental degradation.

According to their calculations a per capita income (based on 2008 dollars, and purchasing power parity) of $5,100 could be extended to 6.2 billion people and still be sustainable. Anything above this, and about one third of the world’s people are already above it, and you quickly move into an unsustainable system.

According to renowned biologist James Lovelock, the Earth can really only sustainably support about 1 billion people. He sits on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, voicing concern that man is doomed – or facing an Armageddon-like reduction in population from a predicted high of 10-12 billion by mid-to-end of the century.

Can we innovate our way out of crisis?

One key component, that we look at in the section on oil, is that we are addicted to cheap oil. It is used for energy as well as the production of most consumer goods, including plastics and clothing, and the transport of much of the food we eat.

Much fuss is made by politicians and green activists about the potential that we will “innovate” our way out of this – that we will come up with technologies to replace our dependence on cheap oil. It may be encouraging to see the efforts being made to run cars on used cooking oil, biodiesel, and even water, but there is a catch, according to TreeHugger:

“The adoption of sustainable technologies should enable basic levels of consumption to remain ecologically viable. From Earth’s perspective, however, the American or even the European way of life is simply not viable. A recent analysis found that in order to produce enough energy over the next 25 years to replace most of what is supplied by fossil fuels, the world would need to build 200 square meters of solar photovoltaic panels every second plus 100 square meters of solar thermal every second plus 24 3-megawatt wind turbines every hour nonstop for the next 25 years. All of this would take tremendous energy and materials–ironically frontloading carbon emissions just when they most need to be reduced–and expand humanity’s total ecological impact significantly in the short term.”

Resource consumption still remains a killer. We are looking at a future where a massive change is needed through the adoption of Earth-friendly technologies to produce sustainable modes of productions, coupled with a stabilized population. But more than this, what are important parts of lives today, certain consumer goods and cars, motorcycles and aircraft, may have to eliminated or severely reduced.

Man has proved himself incredibly intelligent. But when it comes protecting his home and ensuring his future, he has proved himself incredibly stupid.

State of the Planet – David Attenborough

(Sources: Worldwatch Institute, TreeHugger, UN reports)