Ky. voices: Rick Clewett says get real about how far resources can be stretched

By Rick Clewett

The Worldwatch Institute's 2013 State of the World report is built around the concept of planetary boundaries — and that we must stay within these boundaries to ensure "an accommodating environment for the further development of human societies."

We have already violated three of the boundaries: an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of less than 350 parts per million, an annual species extinction rate of less than 10 species per million and a ceiling of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for human use of 35 million tons a year.

Currently our CO2 emission rate is above 400 ppm, our species extinction rate is more than 10 times the recommended ceiling and the nitrogen removal rate is 121 million tons per year.

The runaway growth of greenhouse gas emissions is only one part of how humankind has endangered itself and many other forms of life on planet Earth. Runaway increases in population and resource consumption are also part of the tale.

The authors state that in 1961, humanity's ecological footprint was at about two- thirds of global biocapacity; today humanity is in ecological overshoot, requiring the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the renewable resources we use and absorb our carbon waste.

If everyone in the world consumed as much as the average citizen of North America, Australia and the oil-producing states in the Middle East, we would require the equivalent of six Earths. To look at the other side of the coin, if everyone on Earth today were allowed the same allotment of resources and the size of that allotment was defined so as to stay within our one Earth's ability to supply those needs on an ongoing basis, according to what the authors call a "fair Earth-share" plan, then each of us would have a right to 2,424 calories of food a day, 20 kilograms of meat a year, 2,300 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, eight square meters of living space, 582 miles of vehicle travel a year, 125 miles of air travel, and two tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Of course, these are all estimates, and people aren't ever going to have identical access to resources. But these figures paint a picture of an Earth inhabited by people who have not begun to learn what they can reasonably do and how they must discipline their desires, change their economic concepts and better develop their sense of global justice if we are going to avoid massive problems resulting from hunger, disease, violent weather, inhospitable temperature and violence.

But we have heard enough vague admonitions to be guided by our better natures.

The report's last section is titled "Open in Case of Emergency." I'll simply list the titles of the chapters, each written by a distinguished specialist in his or her field: "Teaching for Turbulence," "Effective Crisis Governance," "Governance in the Long Emergency," "Building an Enduring Environmental Movement," "Resistance: Do the Ends Justify the Means?", "The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering," "Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline," "Climate Change and Displacements," "Cultivating Resilience in a Dangerous World," "Shaping Community Responses to Catastrophe," "Is It Too Late?"

In the introduction, titled "Beyond Sustainability," Robert Engelman states: "Optimism and pessimism are equal distractions from what we need in our current circumstance: realism, a commitment to nature and to each other, and a determination not to waste more time."

All our reasons for not looking at our lifestyles and all our well-honed quips about the gridlock in Congress and about how it is what China and India do about carbon dioxide that matters — none of this will matter 20 or 30 or 50 years from now. Let's see if we can't find our individual and collective ways of working to create a decent future, one that is actually sustainable and just.

Rick Clewett is a professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University.