sustainability

An update to the world’s most important graph

Here’s a graph that I’ve reported several times. It’s taken from the Living Planet Report, and it shows the earth’s biocapacity and our current over-consumption.

Here’s the 2018 update:

As the graph shows, humanity’s total draw on the earth’s resources went into overshoot decades ago. Anything above the dotted green line is over-consumption, and going into ecological debt. As more is consumed than can be replenished every year, we see a decline – falling biodiversity, deforestation, and of course climate change.

Two things to say about this graph on the fourth or fifth time I’ve used it. First, the 2018 edition has the trend line on biocapacity, rather than presenting it as a static line. The dotted green line is rising, which is interesting. I’d read that biocapacity is pushed lower with each year in overshoot, but in reality new technologies and land management techniques are raising how much the planet can create. I’ve been wrong about that then, though any sense of rising biocapacity being good news are swept away by rising consumption.

Secondly, as I’ve been thinking more about inequality, I’d be more wary today of using this graph on its own in a presentation. Not everyone consumes equally, and any graph that aggregates human impact into one image is going to lose that important distinction. In the Living Planet Report, this image is followed on the next page by a world map showing unequal distribution of environmental impacts, and that’s a necessary qualifier.

I still consider this to be one of the most important graphs you’ll ever see. Too much is being asked of the planet, and something will give. Either the ability of the earth to produce resources and process waste breaks down – as we’re seeing with climate change – or consumption is reduced to allow the natural world to recover. I vote the latter, and that’s why it’s so important to challenge a prevailing economic model that sees rising consumption as good. If our definition of wealth is endless rising consumption, for rich and poor alike, then we need to make wealth history.

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