As the world’s leading resource accountant, Global Footprint Network measures trends. Too often, our data reveals worrisome trends. The Ecological Footprint accounting tool, the gold standard for measuring how much biocapacity we have and how much we use, shows most countries—and the entire world—going further into ecological overshoot. It was a message we delivered repeatedly at the Rio+20 Earth Summit last month.
We see other trends, too—trends that give hope, trends that make us believe that we can still reverse the tide. Sometimes, they are hard to recognize. Amid the gloom of recent weeks, for example, anyone would have been hard-pressed to remain optimistic. Consider, first, the headlines.
Many had hoped that Rio+20 would deliver a global agreement that would make it easier for nations to navigate toward a sustainable future, but by most accounts the summit concluded with a torturous sigh. The adopted 49-page outcome document, optimistically titled “The Future We Want,” was widely disparaged. Full of reaffirmations and acknowledgments, but lacking concrete commitments to steer the global ship away from an ecological collision course, the document’s failings makes clear that we must move forward and focus on the future we need—one in which leaders understand that it is in their countries’ own self-interest to act boldly by incorporating ecological risk into economic and government policy.
While Rio+20 is now in the rear-view mirror, the same ecological stressors are still with us; indeed, warnings that the planet is facing a tipping point are more dire than ever. Last month, an international group of 22 scientists, including Global Footprint Network’s former Senior Scientist Justin Kitzes, published a study in the journal Nature that warns of approaching—and perhaps irreversible—ecological tipping points. The paper, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” notes humanity’s increasingly unsustainable rate of resource consumption, and warns that the planet as whole may react in the same way as do local ecosystems, undergoing swift and irreversible transitions as they cross critical thresholds.
A few weeks earlier, WWF released its 2012 Living Planet Report. The report’s conclusions, backed by Global Footprint Network’s updated National Footprint Accounts, are not for the faint of heart: Global biodiversity has decreased nearly 30 percent in the last 40 years and humanity is using nature 52 percent faster than its capacity to keep up . This means that we use the equivalent of about 1.5 Earth’s worth of ecological assets each year—and this demand has doubled since 1966. (We offer a roundup of the media coverage of the WWF report as this edition’s feature story.)
But the news isn’t all bad. Global awareness of ecological overshoot has never been greater, while recognition grows of the limits of GDP as a true indicator of prosperity in the 21st century. Ecological Footprint accounting continues to gain wide exposure and acknowledgement: More local and national governments are adopting the Footprint (see this newsletter’s Footprint Briefs and our Annual Report for recent examples), more media are following it, and more people and organizations are joining us. Our work, too, is winning more world honors: In Rio, Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel and Professor Bill Rees were awarded the Kenneth E. Boulding Award and the Blue Planet Prize for their work co-creating the Ecological Footprint. (See related stories for our Rio+20 wrap-up, more on the Boulding and Blue Planet prizes, and the $300,000 prize money that Wackernagel is donating to Global Footprint Network and his invitation to supporters to help match the gift.)
Dr. William Rees (left) and Dr. Mathis Wackernagel (right)
While the Rio+20 outcome was a disappointment, it serves as a reminder that each nation’s actions become more significant in the absence of global agreements. What happens when an infinite-growth economy runs into a finite planet? Current trends in consumption put us on bumpy path as we hit natural resource constraints, risking economic and social stability, and as we hit limits on emissions sinks, risking ecological instability. But the opportunities are wide open, too. Those who incorporate ecological risk into economic decision-making will better assure their population’s long-term security in the 21st century (see our Q&A with energy industry expert Robert Rapier, also in this newsletter, for a brief discussion on our Competitiveness 2.0 initiative and how energy constraints are becoming fundamental to a nation’s competitiveness).
The Club of Rome just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the publication of “The Limits to Growth” this spring. Now Jorgen Randers, a coauthor of the original study, has published an update, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years. It reads as both a troubling report card for humanity’s performance as stewards of our planet and the author’s projection of the increasingly rocky paths we will navigate over the coming decades.
In the afterward, Randers makes this plea: “Please make my forecast wrong. Together we could create a much better world.”
Global Footprint Network believes we can, in fact, create a much better world, and offers its own reflections in the future we want and need—one in which local and national governments and
business leaders make resource limits central to their decision-making. As we approach Earth Overshoot Day, it is clear that tracking the supply of and demand for ecological resources and services is imperative if we are to prove Randers’ forecast wrong and make the future we need a reality.
If you share the same vision, join us by spreading the word, donating or partnering your organization with ours.
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