August 20th marked a watershed for all humanity: by that date we had used all the natural resources that our earth could replenish in 2013. Since August 21st we’ve been ‘borrowing’ from 2014 — essentially taking from our children and future generations. Not only will we not pay, but next year we’ll carry on consuming ever more of our natural resources faster than the earth can replenish, making this sad ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ fall ever earlier in the year.
This date has been shuffling forward since the mid-1970s, when the best available estimates show that we crossed the point when human consumption exceeded the earth’s annual biocapacity. Since 2001 Earth Overshoot Day has crept forward by three days each year, and today we need almost two earths to feed the unbridled consumption of Victor Lebow and his disciples.
If you can’t live without eating McDonald’s, if you think urban cyclists are crazy, and if you dream of living in a mansion on the outskirts of town, you may want to stop reading this and turn on the TV instead; you’ll find enough variety there to numb your brain. But if you’d like to think and act, here are some ideas to fire you up.
Adapt or (we all) die
Although the future of our planet depends on many things, including how our cities will cope with millions more people in the coming years, part of the solution lies in our patterns of consumption.
How much longer will a high quality of life be confused with a high level of consumption? Is it necessary to buy as much as we can bury or burn? Should we replace human energy with fossil fuels for all our journeys? Throw away 20 per cent of our food? Buy a new phone every year? At the end, let’s face it: accumulating more things simply means having more things to take care of.
Many financial journalists wax lyrical about economic growth. Under the current paradigm the World Bank (WB) argues that if a country grows by a reasonable percentage each year, then everything is just fine. The WB says that Colombia, for example, has grown by more than 3.5 per cent every year for the last decade, excluding 2009. So everything is perfect, no? My economist friends jump whenever I mention this, which is why I jokingly quote the great a historical economist Kenneth Boulding, who said: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist.”
The grand ideologues of the ‘Degrowth Theory’ are no friends of the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps you’ve already heard of this topic, after Latin America’s favourite president, José Mujica of Uruguay, caused a stir on social networks. He shocked our straight-laced families by legalizing marijuana, proudly acknowledging his status as the world’s poorest president, and advising the younger generations to spend more time loving each other than consuming so much.
But perhaps consuming less means producing less? For ultra-orthodox capitalists, just reading this can bring on a nasty rash. Yes, it means producing less and completely shifting our priorities as a society. It involves redefining what it is that makes us richer or better still, happier.
The famous economist Serge Latouche says that ‘Degrowth’ also involves working less; so for example, four people would produce the same food (ie through permaculture) as one person currently produces (or indeed zero, if produced along the extreme lines of Fordism). Degrowth advocates healthier goods, gives priority to local products, reduces and recycles waste, and perhaps most importantly ensures better conditions for the farmers who feed us every day, every week.
In other words, it involves a total transformation of the agribusiness. Alas that’s far from easy in the midst of an agricultural downturn! But under the current conditions we’re not going to get very far: neither the farmers who grow the products for our table nor the people addicted to unhealthy, artificial diets. Ultimately the world is drawing closer to the edge; at a certain point we’ll need to take a stand and then a step back.
Carlos Cadena Gaitán is a PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance. He is also a columnist for several media outlets in Colombia and co-founder of La Ciudad Verde, an award-winning not-for-profit organization which lobbies for urban sustainability in Colombia. This article was first published in El Mundo, 26 August 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: UN Photo / A. Holbrooke.