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The Green Life: Brother, Can You Spare a Planet?

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October 30, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare a Planet?

Power-station-dead-trees "Just as reckless spending is causing recession, so reckless consumption is depleting the world's natural capital to a point where we are endangering our future prosperity." That's how WWF International Director-General James Leape describes the findings of an international team of researchers in this year's "Living Planet" report [PDF]. A biannual effort of the Global Footprint Network, the Zoological Society of London, and WWF, "Living Planet" is a detailed audit of the world's biological resources, including plants, animals, and fresh water. In short, the conclusion is this: An ecological credit crunch looms. How's that for a Halloween scare? (Don't stop here--solutions follow.)

Released this week, the analysis shows we have a burn rate of about 30 percent, meaning we're using living resources that much faster than the planet can regenerate them. In terms of a household budget, this is like spending $65,000 a year when you earn only $50,000 (the median household income).

If our population continues to grow and consume at this pace, the researchers found, it would take two whole planets (or a "Buy N Large" space station, a la Pixar's Wall-E) to meet humanity's demands by the mid-2030s. "Most of us are propping up our current lifestyles, and our economic growth, by drawing (and increasingly overdrawing) upon the ecological capital of other parts of the world," Leape writes. Problem is, planet loans are hard to come by, and so Leape's team suggests a series of overlapping "sustainability wedges" similar to those developed by Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolo, and featured in An Inconvenient Truth. Segment by segment, the theory goes, we can get consumption in line with a realistic long-term supply of energy, for example, and cut our gushing waste stream to a trickle that the environment can actually handle. 

The report also includes a comparison of ecological footprints in different countries, quantifying the amount of land, forest, and fishing grounds used to produce food, fiber, and timber, to absorb waste (including carbon emissions from fossil fuel use), and to house infrastructure. "Since people consume resources and ecological services from all over the world," the researchers explain, "their footprint sums these areas, regardless of where they are located on the planet." On a per capita basis, only the United Arab Emirates exceeds the United States. China falls near the middle of the scale, with four times as many people using about the same amount of resources as the United States.

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