Did We Run Out of Planet?

In Uncategorized by E. Calvin Beisner0 Comments

Today, 2nd August, we have collectively consumed all of the planet’s renewable resources.

So said Nicolas Hulot, France’s Minister of State for Ecological Transition, in a YouTube video published August 2 by Transition ecologique et solidaire.

Sometimes people we assume are intelligent say things that are so blindingly obviously stupid we can’t persuade ourselves to treat them that way, so we think, “Maybe I’m the blindingly obviously stupid one,” and we dig hard to try to figure out the brilliance of what we thought stupid. That’s the case here.

Hulot’s judgment is based on a formula developed by the Global Footprint Network that supposedly shows how much of the earth’s resources people are using versus how rapidly they can be renewed. Click that link and you can calculate, supposedly, how many planets it would take to support everyone if the whole human population lived the way you do. (I did. There are a bunch of judgment calls involved, but mine worked out to a personal Earth Overshoot Day of February 16, i.e., if everyone lived like me, we’d need 7.9 Earths. Supposedly!)

Hulot goes on to say what we need to do “to give nature the time to regenerate the resources that are essential for us (air, water, fish stocks, high quality agricultural soil):

  • “We must work together for renewable energy, because fossil energies pollute and are in limited quantity, but the wind and the sun will not be gone in a year.” He doesn’t mention that the sun’s gone, on average, at least half of every day—plus whatever time it’s obscured by clouds—and the wind is gone whenever it’s not blowing. But, hey, we don’t want to get technical here, do we?
  • “We must also work together for agriculture,” encouraging “local distribution networks where children … eat vegetables and meat produced next door on a farm that respects the environment.” Got it. We all need to become locavores.

Those are the only concrete steps. Oh, yes, he says we must “go from a cowboy economy to a cosmonaut economy.” Cowboy = wasteful, cosmonaut = almost no waste.

And then there’s the politics of it all:

But we must all act, and we must all act together. If we all choose to be cosmonauts rather than cowboys, the future can be a happy place. [I wasn’t aware that the future was a place. I thought it was a time. A little confusion of the dimensions? But Hulot is a government minister; we should cut him some slack.]

With climate plans, the general review of food and nutrition, and with the law for the recovery of biodiversity, France has all the tools necessary to create an ecological and social transition that serves everyone equally.

Of course, it must be not only France but the whole world. France can’t carry the whole planet on its shoulders.

“We must all act, and we must all act together.” Is there a clearer definition of collectivism? A surer recipe for tyranny? In fact, a closer equation to fascism? You know, the political/economic doctrine of the fasces, the sticks all bound together?

Now, just in case you’re getting a little worried that Hulot and the Global Footprint Network are really onto something, let me reassure you: the calculator is a bunch of nonsense.

Bjorn Lomborg, an intelligent human being, a good economist, and President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, explains why. He’s looked under the hood, so to speak.

For more than a decade, the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation organizations have performed complicated calculations to determine our total “ecological footprint” on the planet. In their narrative, population growth and higher standards of living mean that we are now using 1.7 planets and are depleting resources so quickly that by 2030, we would need two planets to sustain us. If everyone were to suddenly rise to American living standards, we would need almost five planets. …

But this scare is almost completely fallacious. The ecological footprint tries to assess all our usage of area and compare it with how much is available. At heart, this is a useful exercise, and like any measure that tries to aggregate many different aspects of human behavior, it tends to simplify its inputs.

Some of these simplifications are valid. It is clear that roads, housing development and food production all take up valuable space on our planet. This part of the ecological footprint is a convenient measure of our literal footprint on earth. But roads and housing only takes up about 3.8% in their latest numbers. And even food production only uses about a third of all productive land [emphasis added]. Moreover, as better technology achieves ever higher yields, it is likely that this total area will not increase much and may even decrease over time.

He goes on to consider forest and grasslands, 25% of the world’s area, and fisheries, perhaps around 5%.

In total, all of the somewhat problematically defined areas sum to 67% of the world’s biologically productive area. There seems to be little problem here – one earth is clearly enough.

But here’s where the formula gets really creative.

What makes the ecological footprint exceed the available land is CO₂ emissions. Clearly it is not obvious how to translate CO₂ into land area. So the ecological footprint decided to get around this by defining the area of emissions as the area of forest needed to soak up the extra CO2. This single factor makes up 101% of the planetary land area and is the only reason why we suddenly need more than one planet. … Not only is it dubious that we would have to reduce CO₂ to zero (though we definitely have to reduce it significantly in the long run). But much more important, choosing forests to soak up CO₂ is the absolutely most inefficient way to cut CO₂. The standard assessment finds that every year we emit one tonne of CO₂, we should plant 2000m2 of forests to soak it up. But if we planted wind turbines or solar panels instead, we would need only about 30m2 or less to avoid a ton of CO₂ emitted.

I.e., the formula assumes we choose a CO2 reduction method that’s 1/66th as efficient as we could.

And we wouldn’t even need to place them on biologically active land (we could place the solar panels on rooftops or in the desert, and wind turbines in the ocean). Suddenly the 101% drops to less than 2% — or possibly zero.

Which is just part of why, as Lomborg cites  from “a recent review,” “ecological footprint measurements, as currently constructed and presented, are so misleading as to preclude their use in any serious science or policy context.”

You can get more details by reading the whole of Lomborg’s article.

The low-down? The scare about “Earth Overshoot Day” is one more bogus apocalypticism.


Featured image courtesy of NASA.

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”

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