Saturday, 11 May 2019

Living Beyond the Planet’s Means.

Or killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.


This is as much an attempt to explain the predicament humanity is facing right now to economists and politicians and journalists -- fixated as they are on Government budgets -- as it is to the wider public.

Our civilisation uses natural resources the Earth provides. Some of them, like coal and oil, exist in nature in finite quantities (technically, stocks) from which humans withdraw every year some quantities (outflows). As nature does not -- in human time-scale at least -- regenerate those stocks (that is, as there are no inflows) they constantly decrease with extraction. They are said to be non-renewable.

Other resources -- like air, water, foodstuff, and other raw materials, as fibre -- are renewable, meaning that nature replenishes their stocks. In principle, they -- steadily regenerated by nature -- could last as long as there is life on our planet.

Think of a chicken farm. The farmer may eat some eggs (outflow), but will need to leave enough eggs (inflow) so that the flock (stock) reproduces itself.

Beyond a certain rate of extraction nature cannot renew those resources any more: outflows overwhelm inflows. Ideally, then, yearly outflows should not exceed yearly inflows, or at least both should balance. That is the idea of an annual budget.


The European Union, to put an example, is home to approximately 7% of the Earth’s population. In this budget, then, the EU is allocated 7% of the Earth’s whole yearly biocapacity (capacity to renew itself). To put that differently, that allowance should provide for both human consumption and nature’s regeneration and last the EU for the whole of 2019.

A measure of the predicament civilisation is going through is that by May 10 the EU has already used up all its budget. At the current rate of usage, by Dec 31 it will have employed 20% of the Earth’s total biocapacity. In other words, it will have used up 2.8 times (= 20%/7%) its allowance. They are living beyond their means.

But so is capitalist civilisation in general. In fact, at the present rate by Dec 31 humankind will have used up 170% of the Earth’s biocapacity. Is not just that nothing is being left for natural renewal, is that even that part of the stock accumulated is being consumed. To put this crudely: capitalism is not only consuming all the eggs (even those set aside to produce egg-laying hens) is also consuming the chickens that lay the eggs.

If one thinks in terms of planets, civilisation is using the biocapacity of 1.7 planets. Except that there is no other planet. Climate change is only a part of the story. Ultimately, this is what is behind mass extinction.

Related reading: WWF Living Planet Report 2019 .


This is no mere theory. It’s reality: the Murray-Darling Basin is drying up, its rivers are dying because a larger fraction of the diminishing rainwater supply goes to farming, especially commercial crops that consume too much water, but are very profitable, like rice and cotton.

Related reading: NSW State of the Environment 2019.

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