Planetary overshoot: How much should we degrow?

Jun 12, 2024
Earth at night was holding in hands on night city background , Energy saving, Earth day, Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Global rates of resource consumption and ecological impact are now far beyond levels that are sustainable, or that all people in the world could rise to, or that technical advance could make sustainable.

This is steadfastly ignored by all governments and the economics profession and the consuming masses. Few realise how great the degrowth would have to be.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that to keep up present consumption of biological resources we’d need to harvest from this earth plus almost another one. Rich world per capita consumption rates are far above those that could be sustainable or that could be spread to all the world’s people. What needs to be stressed here is the magnitude of the overshoot. Here’s the simple arithmetic.

The Fund’s “Footprint” measure indicates that the amount of productive land required to meet the demand of the average Australian is around 7 ha. So if the 10 billion people likely by 2050 rose to our “living standards” we would need perhaps 70 billion ha …but there are only 12 billion ha of productive land on the planet. If we leave one-third of it for nature there would only be 0.8 ha per capita available. These numbers indicate that Australian’s today are using around 9 times the per capita amounts that would be possible for all to use in 2050.

If the goal is to raise them all to our 2050 living standards given our present rates of growth of population and GDP then the multiple would probably be more than doubled.

But there are several factors that make the situation much worse than this.

  • The situation for materials used is worse than for productive land. Wiedmannet al. find that the top 8 iron and aluminium ore using countries average 14 times the per capita consumption of the bottom 80 countries. Ore grades are declining.
  • An update of the study (Lenzen et al.) found that the per capita material footprint of the top approximately 20% of countries was 14 times that of all the rest.
  • The situation for metals is even worse. The multiple is in the region of 21.
  • The study found that not only is there no significant evidence of decoupling of metal ore use from GDP growth measured in PPP, the reverse of decoupling is evident. That is for every 1% increase in GDP minerals use now rises 1.9%. (Zheng et al. also come to this conclusion.)
  • Williams reports that humans are taking 25-38% of the planet’s net primary production. He says continuation of present population and GDP growth would treble this by 2050. (The Australian growth rate in 2022 was 4.3%p.a. World Bank.)

These figures show that the degrowth required in rich countries if a sustainable situation is to be achieved would reduce rich world consumption, ”living standards” and GDP to a minute fraction of present levels. This cannot be done unless there is a huge degrowth transition to far simpler lifestyles and systems. (Here’s how it could be done.)

This would mean the end of capitalism and several other nasty things, including the obsession with affluence and getting richer all the time. So we aren’t going to do it are we. That’s why there is now no possibility of avoiding the descent into a time of great troubles that could see the end of us. The good news is that its onset might jolt enough people into seeing that the only ultimate solution is to shift to far simpler lifestyles and systems. Such a transition is being worked for in the Degrowth, Ecovillage, Transition Towns and related movements.

If you don’t intend to do anything about this then I strongly recommend that you order more submarines right away. You will need them to deal with the 5 billion people you have taught to crave affluence, money and property while you siphon a net $2.5 trillion from them every year (Hickle 2021.), and the Chinese who are threatening to beat you in the competition for global resources and markets.

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