The words indicate that a tipping point has been reached, or surpassed. The proverbial last straw has been placed upon the camels back.
If we are sensitive enough we might hear the Earth telling us the same – this time you’ve gone too far. Have we? We have been slowly (or speedily) developing our capacity to consume. We have been developing our technologies, often for our betterment. Our technological development has enabled us to do a lot more than we could even just one century ago. We can travel quicker and further. We have eradicated a number of diseases. We can live more comfortably. We can be entertained at the touch of a button on a hand-held phone.
But, have we now gone too far on this path? Consider a few examples:
Earth Overshoot Day
Living upon this planet we use resources and create waste which are regenerated. However, what happens when the amount we consume and waste exceeds the amount that is being regenerated? Its a bit like having an income and having savings. If you spend within your income you will continue to grow your savings. But, if you spend more than your income you will deplete your savings – a recipe for financial collapse. So it is with Earth Overshoot Day. As global citizens we have been consuming and wasting more than is regenerated since 1970. What’s more, we have been doing so at a faster and faster rate. Using the metaphor of savings it is as if each year we dip into our savings more than the previous year. It is unsustainable.
350 parts per million
In 2007 Jim Hansen, a NASA scientist, co-authored a paper that suggested that if the atmosphere contained more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide then the earth would possibly pass through a threshold from which it may not recover. In the abstract to that paper he wrote that at such a level we can’t have a planet “that is similar to the one on which civilisation developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”
Yet we have already surpassed 350 ppm and have even gone beyond 400 ppm. Furthermore, notwithstanding Paris Summits and the like, we are adding more parts per million every year than were added the previous year. Currently we are adding over 2 ppm every year.
Attempts to measure the amount of biodiversity loss attributed to human behaviour is not easy. Estimates vary between 4 and 10 times the natural background extinction loss. Some estimates even suggest that the loss of species is as high as 100 times the natural background loss. Anyone who has studied ecology knows how devastating the loss of even one species (particularly predator species) can be for a whole ecology. When we extrapolate that understanding to the whole planet we have to ask ourselves – have we lost too much biodiversity already?
Currently over 40% of the earths land area is taken up by agriculture or urban use, with much of the remainder criss-crossed and cut into by roads. Estimates are that by 2025 the amount of land devoted to agriculture and/or urban use will be over 50%.
On one level it seems that the worlds wealth and income has increased, and that may be so. However, inequality levels are increasing. In some parts of the world inequality (measured by the gini coefficient1) are at levels approaching, or surpassing, the levels just prior to the Great Depression. Even in those parts of the world that are experiencing levels less than pre-Depression days the gini coefficient is on the increase. It may just be a matter of time. In much of the western world plus China, Russia and India, the gini coefficient has been steadily rising since 1980.
Have We Gone Too Far?
Each of these examples suggests that we are getting close to some tipping point, and possibly have already surpassed some. We’ve already seen the consequences that followed high inequality levels in the early part of the 20th century – the Great Depression. We are starting to see some of consequences of an atmosphere with more than 350 ppm of carbon dioxide – more and worse weather related catastrophes.
This time we’ve gone too far. Can we recover? That is up to all of us, individually and collectively.
1. The gini coefficient was developed by Italian statistician Corrado Gini in 1912 and is a measure of the inequality within a nation or between nations. The coefficient is expressed as a number between 0 and 1 where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 a situation where one person has all the income/wealth and everyone else has none.