Ecological Limits Make Headlines

07/01/2010 09:14 PM

“Humanity is brushing up against ecological limits”, “natural resources are dwindling”, “unsustainable consumption increases” – whatever the chosen term or headline, the fact is that the concept of overshoot has gotten a lot of media attention recently. The past few months have seen stories in The New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among others, all reflecting a growing awareness that carbon is only part of the overshoot story.

In a New York Times Op-Ed column “What’s Your Consumption Factor,” (January 2, 2008), Jared Diamond, author of the recent book Collapse, discusses the importance of the number 32: that’s the difference in the rate at which people in the industrialized nations consume resources and produce waste compared to those in the non-industrialized world. “If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up,” Diamond writes. “It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”

The good news, according to Diamond, is that our consumption contributes little to the most vital quality-of-life indicators, factors like life expectancy, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement and quality public education. He also argues that we know how to extract fish from the ocean and timber from the forests in a way that is sustainable – we just haven’t put this knowledge into practice. Ultimately, he says, it is certain that developed nations will soon be forced to consume less, while the developing world will consume more. “These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects,” he says.

The Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of resource limits in “New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears” (March 24, 2008).  As the world grows more populous – and prosperous – the demand for our limited resources “has soared. If supplies don’t keep pace, prices are likely to climb further, economic growth in rich and poor nations could suffer, and some fear violent conflicts could ensue.” Some of the resources – such as arable land and fresh water – have no substitutes, the authors say. Others, like coal, have negative environmental impacts like contributing to global warming that limit their utility. Economics and technology may play a part in the solution, the authors say, but ultimately, consumer behavior will have to change.

In The New Yorker article “Big Foot” (February 25, 2008), Michael Specter poses the question: how do we measure our environmental impact? “Possessing an excessive carbon footprint is becoming the equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter,” he says. At the same time, he writes, “the calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex.” He assesses pros and cons of some of the measures being adopted to address climate change, from the personal – making certain product choices, eating local, driving less – to the political, in the form of taxes, economic incentives and laws.

Learn More:

Read Diamond’s New York Times article (It’s free to become a member and log in.)

Read the Wall Street Journal story

Read Specter’s New Yorker article

Categories: Ecological Limits


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