Living Within Our Means, Means Knowing Our Limits


by Fred First

I recently read these headlines, and was oddly encouraged: “Europe has already run out of fish for the year.” I’ll share with you the reason for my odd reaction to this seemingly bad news.

Surely, it is not a good thing that the year is only half past and the sustainable catch of haddock for England’s fish n’ chips has already been devoured. But there is a silver lining on this dark cloud: We now know that Europe has already run through a year’s replenish-able allotment of fish.

We have the technology to determine both total use and remaining supply. We are the only species on Earth to have gained the capability to know well before we exceed the rebound capacity for the things we take from nature.

For the first time, science and technology provide a fuel gauge for the future. For the first time, acknowledging the possibility of failure, we’re beginning to glance down furtively to the dashboard. How close are we to running out of nature-made-and-sustained resources—water, soil, food, wood, fish and fiber? Seeing that little gas pump icon light up on the dash is a good thing, if we pay attention. Better yet, is to avoid getting so close to empty, or so my wife has told me more than once.

Enter the discipline of eco-economics. Eco-economics puts the environment as a chief sphere of concern to human well-being, before the human economy. I heard that gasp. This is not to say it elevates nature as a deity or demeans the value of human existence and culture. It simply and rightly acknowledges “the environment” as the totality of our life support system—a finite endowment upon which human economies are and always have been dependent. The old economic model saw our natural goods (water, soil, food, etc) as a mere commodity and a subset of our growth-oriented economy.

Ecosystem-based management attempts to take a holistic inventory of our supplies well before they become exhausted or spoiled beyond use. This approach can provide a “dashboard panel” that can help us gauge how quickly our panty is growing bare, going to the bad, or is being restored by healthy natural processes.

Some prominent eco-economists have proposed that there are nine major “planetary boundaries”—limits beyond which we are obligated not to go. These serve a similar warning function to protective weight limits for bridges, speed limits for cars on southwest Virginia back roads or the blood-chemistry limits on your annual checkup above which your doctor makes ominous hissing sounds under his breath.

These dashboard monitors are: biodiversity loss, climate change, excess nitrogen (we’re already beyond boundaries for these three) and phosphorus production, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global consumption of freshwater, change in land use for agriculture, air pollution, and chemical pollution.

Two significant factors have brought us so dangerously close to these lines in the sand. There are billions more of us. And the portion size (our resource-use footprint) continues to increase. As humanity becomes more “developed” each of us takes a bigger bite per person from the single pie we call Earth.

This rate of extraction and consumption over a few short generations has brought unprecedented pressure on our life support systems. In our very recent American post-frontier past, we did not have the means to be aware of this planetary stress. It has taken a generation for the seriousness of today’s future challenge to finally sink in. Today, we’re finally beginning to understand.

Even if we stay within these boundaries there is no guarantee that humanity will thrive or even survive at current population levels. But it is certain that to disregard these limits would pose grave risks—that are knowable and are avoidable. The challenges to global governance are immense. The demand for a new level of cooperation will be unprecedented in humanity’s short history. But this can be done.

Back to the fish and chips: Canada’s Grand Banks cod fishery plunged in a few decades to less than 5% of their former populations due to overfishing (going dangerously close to a boundary.) With wise fishery management practices, those devastated populations have recently returned to 34% of their former numbers.

Up to a point, species and ecosystems can rebound. Oceans and soils and forests can be managed as sustainable resources, but only if we know—and then live—within safe limits.