Breaching environmental boundaries: UN report on resource limits

GR:  This is a thoughtful assessment of the problems with development goals that seek to raise everyone to the living standards of the United States and European Union.  Though the article brings the problems into clear perspective, I think it is already clear to most people that we can’t extract enough resources to meet the perceived need for high levels of material wealth held by Earth’s growing human population.  Cultural and social expectations need to change radically if we are reduce our population and our material consumption to truly sustainable levels.

Coal Mines at the source of the Yellow River, China

“This summer, the United Nations International Resource Panel (IRP), published ‘Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity’, a report that admits what ecologists have been saying for decades: resources are limited, human consumption trends are unsustainable and resource depletion diminishes human health, quality of life and future development.

“The report shows that consumption of Earth’s primary resources (metals, fuels, timber, cereals and so forth) has tripled in the last 40 years, driven by population growth (increasing at about 1.1% per year), economic growth (averaging about 3% per year over the same period) and consumption per person, worldwide.

“Economic growth has helped lift some regions from poverty and created more middle-class consumers, while enriching the wealthiest nations the most. The UN report acknowledges, however, that advances in human well-being have been achieved through consumption patterns that are “not sustainable” and that will “ultimately deplete the resources − causing shortages [and] conflict”.

“In 1970 — when ecologists in Canada founded Greenpeace and Club of Rome scholars prepared the original ‘Limits to Growth’ study — a human population of 3.7 billion used 22 billion tons of primary materials per year. Forty years later, in 2010, with a population of 6.7 billion, humans used 70 billion tons. Now, in 2016, we require about 86 billion tons and the UN Resource Panel estimates that by 2050 we will require annually some 180 billion tons of raw materials, which Earth’s ecosystems may not be able to provide.— Rex Weyler (Breaching environmental boundaries: UN report on resource limits)

Investing in Nature

“A new first-ever survey of conservation impact investing reveals a market of approximately $23 billion across just the last five years, and finds that investments in this space are expected to more than triple over the next five years (2014-2018). However, the report also finds that a substantial amount of potential private capital has not been deployed, demonstrating a need for a significant increase in the number of risk-adjusted investment opportunities.
Impact investment is one way to address the critical global deficit in conservation funding. It has been estimated that about $300 billion is needed annually to meet the world’s conservation challenges, according to a Global Canopy Programme report. Yet, current levels of investment, mainly from governments, multilateral agencies and philanthropic sources, total only about $50 billion.
“The survey shows that the approximately $23 billion committed to conservation impact investments from 2009-2013 fell into three main categories:
“Water quantity and quality conservation, including investments in watershed protection, water conservation and storm water management, and trading in credits related to watershed management.
“Sustainable food and fiber production, including investments in sustainable agriculture, timber production, aquaculture, and wild-caught fisheries.
“Habitat conservation, including investments in the protection of shorelines to reduce coastal erosion, projects to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), land easements, and mitigation banking” Source:

GR:  Redirecting investments from say coal to sustainable forestry sounds like the solution to all the environmental problems we attribute to misguided and shortsighted business practices.  In a free market, we expect investments to shift as profit opportunities increase. With every day now, we strengthen the need to preserve diminishing resources, and thus there is more opportunity for profits in resource-preservation.  However, the shift of investments to nature will not solve our environmental problems. Leopold pointed out the flaw in the idea when he said that most wildlife species have no definable economic value.  You see, “sustainable” does not mean preservation of natural ecosystem processes and natural biodiversity.  It means that the methods used to manage and harvest the resources will not diminish their productivity.  For example, trees require soil and water, so sustainable forestry protects soils and watersheds. However, trees do not require butterflies or porcupines, so timber farmers use pesticides to protect trees from insects, and they use traps and poison to dispose of larger forest animals.  And so on.

Can We Feed 3 Billion More People and Save the Environment?

Feeding 3 Billion More People

worldpopThe U. S. Census Bureau uses world data to estimate that in 2150, Earth’s human population will reach 9 billion and stay around that number for the next few centuries.  But must we stop?  Can’t we go on to 12 billion?  In an article published in America’s leading academic journal, Science, a group of scientists led by Paul C. West say yes.  Here is the full abstract of their article:

“Achieving sustainable global food security is one of humanity’s contemporary challenges. Here we present an analysis identifying key “global leverage points” that offer the best opportunities to improve both global food security and environmental sustainability. We find that a relatively small set of places and actions could provide enough new calories to meet the basic needs for more than 3 billion people, address many environmental impacts with global consequences, and focus food waste reduction on the commodities with the greatest impact on food security. These leverage points in the global food system can help guide how nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, citizens’ groups, and businesses prioritize actions” (Paul C. West, et al, Science 345: 325-328).

The editors of Science had this to say:  “Keeping societies stable and managing Earth’s resources sustainably depend on doing a good, steady job producing and distributing food. West et al. asked what combinations of crops and regions offer the best chance of progress. Their analysis focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, water use, and food waste. They identify regions that are likely to yield the best balance between applying fertilizer to increase crop yields versus the resulting environmental impact” (editor, Science 345: 325).

Of course, there will be problems finding the leadership needed to pull the levers the authors identify.  If we can find them, however, perhaps we can then begin looking for more solutions that will let us sustain our growth far into the future.  Some pessimists have pointed out that we can’t keep growing because we would eventually reach the point where we would shoulder-to-shoulder cover the planet.  Well, we have learned it is possible to live and reproduce in tight spaces.  Besides, what about adapting to living standing on someone’s shoulders (or being stood upon)?  We could double the bleaker’s so-called space limitation.

New Housing With Uncertain Water Supplies

New Housing With Uncertain Water Supplies

Despite the uncertainties, the effort of Paul C. West his coauthors should encourage renewed efforts by developers who might have felt a tingle of concern that growth and profits could slow.  Their new slogan might become:  “Don’t say slow, science says grow.” ;-).