A finite planet

G Magazine

Only when we recognise the limited nature of our planet’s resources will we be able to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases.


Credit: iStockphoto

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In my 12 months as NSW Australian of the Year, I’ve had the great fortune to go out and talk to tens of thousands of Australians.

I found myself speaking in many different places. I’ve spoken in tents in rural towns and presented to boardrooms at the big end of town. No matter where I went, it was encouraging to find one common thing at all of these gatherings. Wherever I went, nearly everyone I spoke to was worried about the impact that a degraded environment will have on current and future generations of Australian kids.

Despite the best efforts of sceptics to counter the ‘inconvenient truth’, ordinary people have nonetheless been receptive to the ‘undeniable truth’. Most of the public don’t understand the science of climate change, but they get the fact that growing population and consumption is having an undeniable impact on the world’s environment.

People see the impacts of tropical deforestation. They understand the impact of unsustainable fisheries. They see and smell pollution. They know what’s happening to tigers and orangutans. They’ve experienced and seen enough to become worried about the changes that we’re visiting on our environment. Even if they can’t put their finger on it, they get that ‘something is wrong’.

Over the past few years, politicians have spent far too much time focussing on carbon pollution and climate change. In doing so, they’ve missed the key immediate problem that’s right in front of our eyes: increased consumption and resource use is what leads to increased greenhouse pollution. Combined, these problems give rise to the risk of climate change, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, poverty and desertification.

At the Greenaccord International Media Forum in Italy last October, many of the speeches focussed on humanity’s inability to live within its means. We’re ignoring the basic fact that our planet has finite resources and there’s only so much to go around. The Global Footprint Network did the sums and worked out that we currently use the equivalent of 1.5 planets a year to support our current way of life. Put another way, they state that “it now takes a year and six months for the Earth to regenerate [the renewable resources] we use in one year”. And if population and consumption patterns are not curtailed, we’re on track to be using the equivalent of two planets a year by 2030.

At Greenaccord I met Charlie Hargroves, the co-author of Factor Five. His book argues that to live within our means we need to transform the world through 80 per cent improvements in resource productivity. A 2009 Deutsche Bank report also estimated that the global food sector will have to increase its productivity by at least 50 per cent between now and 2050 to feed a projected population of close to nine billion.

But how can we create economic growth on a planet with finite resources and an ever-growing population? Such major increases in efficiency and productivity can only be achieved by a fundamental restructuring of the way in which our economies are run, the types of energy that we use and the ways we create the goods and services that we trade.

In 1962, JFK challenged America to go to the moon, “because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energy and skills. Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone. And one which we intend to win.” Despite immense technological hurdles, his challenge was met within a decade.

Today we need to issue a similar call to action for sustainability. All evidence points to our need to fundamentally change the way that we power and sustain our world. It’s a change that we need to bring about in the shortest timeframe possible.

Jon Dee is the founder and managing director of environmental advocacy organisation Do Something.