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Posted by on Jun 7, 2014 in Culture, Evironment, featured, Science, Society | 25 comments

Sustainability and Humanity’s Footprint

This week’s Science is all about sustainability and I wanted to bring on particular article to your attention.

The article is “Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. To being, let’s run through an analogy. We all have (I hope) retirement accounts of some kind, at the very least, social security. The amount of money you put into that account and take out after retirement is greatly dependent on two things. How long you live after retirement and how much money you need after retirement. Sadly, these things are very, very difficult to estimate.

One woman, whom I worked with for several years, finally retired at the age of 69. She didn’t live out the rest of the year. My dad, rather foolishly, spent more of his retirement and is now living off of social security and medicare. My mom has saved very wisely (at the expense of some of my teenage years) and now has a VERY nice house, a new car, and money to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Not to mention very good health.

So, there’s no real way to tell just how much you’re going to need when you retire. My 401k company tells me I’m on track to make just a little less during retirement than I make now, which should be OK for me. Of course, if I chose to, I could withdraw more money than my current salary and hope that I die before the money runs out. Or, in anticipation of a longer life, I could withdraw less, life more frugally, and hope for either a longer life or that my children will have more money when I die.

That sounds like a strange way to talk about sustainability. But it’s pretty close. We have a supply of resources on Earth and we have a budget. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to determine what those values are, but here are the numbers estimated in this paper (generally by other papers).

The use of blue water, the surface and ground water resources, exceeds the maximum sustainable values for at least part of the year for half the world’s rivers. Gray water, referring to water pollution, exceeds the maximum sustainable amount in 2/3s of the world’s rivers. Dynamic environments can handle some waste naturally. Wetlands, for example, are excellent sinks for some forms of waste. But we’re over budget.

We have to talk about global warming here. The current carbon production of 46-55 gigatons per year must be reduced to less than 25 gigatons per year just to keep the Earth from getting two degrees Celsius warmer.

Material resources are much, much worse. We’re using 70 gigatons per year of natural resources. The estimated sustainable value is between 8 and 10 gigatons per year.

Land use is another area of concern. We’re using 18 billion hectares, but 12 billion is the sustainable level. At this level we need one and half planets for our population.

The situation is poised to get worse. As developing countries see the wealth of countries like the US, they want that wealth for themselves. And, honestly, it’s really hard to jump far out into the lead in terms of individual wealth and then declare the race over and no, you may not even catch up. If the rest of the world used resources at the same rate that industrialized nations do, then we would need four or five planets to support all of us.

Something like 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 US dollars per day. That’s less than I pay for my cell phone and internet/TV bills. How’s that for some perspective?

The ecological footprint (that is how much land it takes to support something) of the average global citizen is 2.7 hectares. The average US citizen needs 7.2 hectares.

from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Human_welfare_and_ecological_footprint.jpg

from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Human_welfare_and_ecological_footprint.jpg

Note that this graph shows US citizens at 10 hectares. I also found graphs that show us at 6 hectares. This goes to the point I made about how difficult this is to estimate.

Another chart by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development shows something else that I want to mention.

sus_dev_graph

Notice how the bio-capacity for 1961 is almost twice what is for 2007? Going back to the analogy of my retirement. If I take out roughly my present salary from my various retirement accounts, then I can do that for about 20 years. If I take out about half my salary, then I could that almost indefinitely. If I take out more, then the time I can withdraw that amount of money falls rapidly.

If we were had started using resources at a sustainable level  in 1961, then the world could have supported everyone at an average of 3.8 or so hectares per person. But instead, between 1961 and 2008, resource use more than doubled. Now, having used a big chunk of our nest egg, even if we move to total sustainable levels of everything, the Earth can’t support us at the level from 1961.  Now, it’s much lower, according to this chart 1.9 hectares per person.

Yes, these charts and the paper have different values for all of this. They aren’t that different though. And the one thing that they all show is that we (and I mean all humans on the planet) are using way too many resources.

The solution is going to be unpleasant. It means that we can’t live like we do now. We can’t bring the developing nations up to our level of resource use and we have to bring our own levels of use down considerably.

The paper suggests some things

—include replacing animal with crop products (40, 41), reducing food and other waste (40), saving energy at home  and in transport (42), and buying second-hand, recycled products and low-footprint, dematerialized “services” rather than primary-material–based goods (39). However, such behavioral changes are difficult to
achieve in reality because of social constraints and lock-ins (43).

Of course, even doing all of those things, we will probably fall into the trap that we have historically fallen into. We get more and more efficient, but instead of keeping at the same level, we use that efficiency to give ourselves more.  Instead of consumption levels decreasing, they increase. Electricity costs 5 cents instead of ten cents, run that AC all day and all night, instead of leaving it at 79 all the time.

The authors say it best here

Profound, effective, socially accepted, and long-lasting changes as required for a truly sustainable transition have yet to occur.

I do think that we are getting better. The reality of global warming seems to have reached the majority of the US, even if our so-called leaders try to ignore it. People are trying to be more efficient. Most cities have recycling programs now where even ten years ago, most did not. There is a larger push for electronics recycling instead of just tossing it in the trash*.

Communities are coming together to reduce water usage and support renewable, non-polluting energy. The costs and efficiencies of renewable energy are roughly equivalent to the fossil fuels they are trying to replace.

Once we get a national movement to more sustainable forms of electricity and accept that GMOs are about the only way we’re going to be able to feed everyone on the planet (especially as we get closer to that 2 degree C temperature increase), then we’ll begin to make real progress.

Of course, there is the possibility that science and technology can come to our rescue. Perhaps we can find a way to easily and cheaply remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (as can be done with nitrogen oxides, which cause smog).

Perhaps we can add resources from asteroids. The Earth is not a completely closed system (as solar energy proves), but there are additional sources of metals and elements out there in our solar system. It will be some time before we can move and extract them, but that time (I hope) is coming.

And, as I mentioned, using our knowledge of genetics to craft food crops that are suited to the environment (as we have been doing through artificial selection for millenia) in order to make the best use of available land. Keeping in mind that we’re going to lose a big chunk of that land over the next 100 years.

This is a good paper and I think it should be much more widely circulated. (So please share this.) There are people that we just will not be able to get to understand that they can’t just buy a new car every two years. But, 50 years ago, there wasn’t anyone willing to let homosexuals marry. Today about half the states allow it and all the rest of them are being challenged in court.

We can do this. We have to do this. I have a kid and I want him to have something left.

________________________________

Hoekstra, A. & Wiedmann, T. Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint.Science 344, 11141117 (2014).

* Man, if I could figure out a way to extract useful metals from landfills, I’d be a bajillionaire.

  • Phil T Tipp

    Uh oh. Global Warming fail. Don’t believe the negative hype. There really is no science on the subject which stands up to the most cursory investigation. Too much hyperbole, hype and grant-chasing going on, not to mention ideology, (paid for) policy-based evidence-finding, careerism, narcissism, blackmail, litigiousness and highly questionable cultural marxism (with nasty tones of eco-radical wealth ‘redistribution’) all stinking up the scientific debate.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      Phil, you have no idea what you are talking about. ALL the science points to global warming. Even people who think that Michael Mann is a liar and a poor scientist still agree that global warming is happening.

      As far as your pathetic claim about grants. Which do you think is more likely? Tens of thousands of scientists at institutions and private facilities all over the world all being paid off by some unknown group or organization (to the tune of a couple of thousand dollars a year) or what is really going on, that is, all scientists agree and the industry that makes billions of dollars a month is trying to prevent you from understanding the science so that you will keep filling the pockets of a few exceedingly rich people?

      Don’t answer. Just think for once in your life.

      • Phil T Tipp

        Pretentious idiot. I have waded into the lair of a pseudo-intellectual apparently. ALL (your shouty caps) the science points in different directions. To state otherwise is egregious in the extreme. I expect you to spout some limp rubbish about ‘x-percentage of scientists agree with anthropogenic global warming’ – which would amuse me no end. Go on, I dare you.

        • SmilodonsRetreat

          Show me. Show me five peer-reviewed papers that support your claims. You made the claim, back it up.

          • Phil T Tipp

            Couldn’t help yourself, could you? I was correct, oblique or not – the inference is still there in your comment – “but, but because, peer-review! And because, no debate! Baa!”

            You show me 5 peer-reviewed climate-quasi-science papers that are either:

            A) Critically peer-reviewed
            B) Supported by any actual science…
            C) …as pertains to the scientific method…
            D) …and not to fudged figures, wishful thinking, grant-chasing, tenure sniffing, magical mathematical models and idiots’ ideology.

            Results=0

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            If you actually read my blog, you will find links to dozens of peer-reviewed papers from reputable scientists who are actually climate scientists.

            I have no idea what you want or need, but I don’t think you’re going to find it here.

            You have yet to provide ANY evidence of anything you have said. Again, when you can back up your claims, feel free to come back. Until then, run along.

          • Phil T Tipp

            My work here is done, o pretentious one.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            Sayth the person who didn’t actually do anything but whine.

          • Phil T Tipp

            Read on woodentop.

            And besides, it tickles me that you chicken-little sky-is-falling miserablists cannot abide the fact that free thinkers exist outside of your narrow little ideology. The sub-educated wrath you exhibit in your girly passive-aggressive posts cheers me up no end.

            Ta ta

          • Tim Tian
          • Phil T Tipp

            1. NASA, outed – creating evidence for the politicians (who fund them) in order to justify policy. This is policy-based-evidence, this is not science. Even their own are turning against this worryingly un-scientific use of science funding. Besides, NASA require any old excuse to remain politically relevant these days, as we’re no longer a space-faring species.

            More: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/nasa-scientists-dispute-climate-change-2012-4

            and: https://climatism.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/

            2. The Aussies woke up to Gillard’s Carbon Tax scam, kicked her marxists out of government, and have decided to stop wasting huge money on the CSIRO gravy-train. Goodnight CSIRO, your warmist-doom-mongering will not be missed.

            More: http://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/million-government-funding-cuts-to-the-csiro-will-have-huge-impacts-on-scientific-research-in-australia/story-fn84fgcm-1226937209145

            The end is nigh for the church of anthropogenic global warming! Hooray for actual science and common sense!

          • Tim Tian

            Have you looked at historical satellite pics of the north and south pole?
            Have you seen the historical weather hot days/cold days?
            Have you seen the amount of CO2 we’re pumping in to the air?

          • Phil T Tipp

            1 ) How many satellite pics of the poles go back beyond the start of the industrial revolution? None. How many go back to the last ice age? None. How many go back to the last warm period? None. If there are no parameters for comparison, then none can be made.

            ps: Just so you know, “Arctic sea ice melted at its typical rate in May while Antarctic sea ice chalked up another record the according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

            Arctic sea ice extent in May was the third lowest recorded for any May in the satellite era while sea ice in the Antarctic reached its greatest extent for a May in the satellite era.”

            http://www.reportingclimatescience.com/news-stories/article/arctic-sea-ice-melted-normally-in-may-while-antarctic-set-record.html

            2 ) Weather is not climate woodentop. And correlation is not causation. It’s all in balance, and the time-scales involved are phenomenally long.

            3 ) ‘Seen the amount of CO2′, nope. CO2 is invisible, odourless, tasteless, harmless and occurs naturally as a trace gas in our atmosphere. It is an essential ingredient in plant photosynthesis and acts, along with a massive amount of water-vapour, to regulate surface and lower-tropospheric temperatures.

            The rest is noise, politics, ideology and lies. Follow the money, ask difficult questions, take nothing for granted, throw out your TV. Free your mind.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            You really don’t know anything about geology or chemistry do you?

            Do us all a favor and throw out your computer or learn about the subject you are talking about.

          • Phil T Tipp

            Ooo you hate it when someone else gets to grandstand in your pseudo-intellectual sandbox don’t you? heh. Playtime’s over snot-nose! Warmism is over! I’m loving it!

            Clarify your whinge above, or shut up.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            You yourself said that even yearly fluctuations are just weather. Then you go and use that same fluctuation as evidence that global warming isn’t happening. That’s a logical fallacy.

            But let’s talk about CO2. You say it’s “harmless”, so you’d be willing to breathe an atmosphere that contains 70,000 ppm of CO2? Really?

            Sure, it helps plants and, in some cases (but not all, go ahead, impress me and tell me which ones don’t follow this rule) increased concentration makes plants grow faster, but carbon dioxide is almost never the limiting factor in biomass production. Sure there’s a small bump in productivity with increasing CO2, but we’re talking about a very small bump. Because CO2 isn’t the limiting factor. What is… hmmm… I wonder… it could be that stuff that we always mix in with gardens and crop fields and potted plants.

            Water vapor, is, of course, a green house gas. Just like carbon dioxide and just like methane. The effect of water vapor is highly variable running from near 0% to nearly 100% saturation depending on where you are. Methane is much more potent than CO2, but it only lasts in the atmosphere for about 12 years and then chemically decays to… CO2, which has an atmospheric dwell time of between 30 and 90 years (depending on conditions).

            Plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere, except humans are cutting down and destroying more plants than we create a use for food.

            Then too, we’re digging up plants that have been buried for 250 million years or so and burning their remains (you know it as oil and coal) which adds to the CO2 load in the atmosphere.

            And yes, we have to have some CO2 in the atmosphere or the Earth would be a snowball. Indeed, a 2 degree drop in average global temperature would result in glaciers covering all of Canada, most of the northern most states in the US and most of Europe. That’s all it would take. A 2 degree C change DOWNWARD.

            How do we know, because we can determine the global temperature in the past, unlike what you say. It’s paleoclimatology. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/paleoclimatology-data

            And we also know the CO2 content of the atmosphere in the past. Ice cores. Look them up. Want to see the correlation of CO2 and global temp over the past 420,000 years? Here you go:

            http://geoweb.princeton.edu/people/bender/lab/downloads/Petit_et_al_1999_copy.pdf

            This paper is 15 years old, which means you over a decade behind the times when it comes to actual knowledge about what’s going on. And don’t even try the “where you there argument”: It’s too pathetic: http://www.skepticink.com/smilodonsretreat/2014/02/04/the-were-you-there-argument-hamnye-debate/

            When you read that paper and point out publishable flaws in it, then we can talk.

            Now, you are right correlation is not causation. It’s a good thing that we know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. That’s basic chemistry and has been known for over 120 years.

            Shockingly, when you increase the amount of a gas that causes radiative heat to remain in a system (say Earth), the temperature goes up! Who knew?

            Of course, we have massively huge heat sinks. The oceans and the ice caps, which even the paper you references points out that the ARCTIC caps are at the lowest extent ever.

            But what really gets me, is you don’t even bother to actually go look at the climate data yourself. It’s all out there. All of the NASA GIS data is available for download. As is most of the other institutions data sets.

            http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/2013/13

            The hottest year on record was 2010, then 2005, then 1998, then 2013 and 2003 tied for fourth. Then 02, and 06, and 09 and 07 tied for 8th and ’04 and ’12 tied for tenth.

            Ten of the 11 hottest years on record were in the last 12 years.

            But what about what happened before that?

            If we start with the year 2000 as our baseline, the hottest year on record was 1998. Then 1995, then ’97, then ’99, then ’90, then ’91, then 2k!. Then it was 1988, and 1987.

            Look at that, as of the year 2000, seven of the nine hottest years ever recorded were in the 1990s.

            And please don’t try to bring up that pathetic “the 1930s were hotter”. No, they weren’t. The temperature ANOMALY was greater in the 30s, but the actual temperatures were much lower than present. You should be able to explain why the anomaly would appear much larger than the present anomaly right? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

            So, let’s see. We have historical data for 420,000 years that shows with every rise in CO2 and methane, there is an increase in global temperature.

            CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

            We are putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere (it’s tracked, bonus points if you can name where).

            The global temperature is rising.

            This isn’t a prediction dude. It’s observed, right now. It’s happening.

          • Phil T Tipp

            Mann’s hockey stick has been broken. Discredited. CRU at the UofEA should be in jail. Their ‘work’ is the basis of those other papers you were up all night feverishly digging for. However discount the NOAA paper – it’s in the same moribund basket as NASA, fund snuffling grant chasers, civil servants.

            The rest is built on a belief system. You’re guilty of confirmation bias.

            The old game is up and you know it – no amount of self-justifying so-called ‘peer-review’ will save it. Science has a long way to come back to respectability, for the last few decades they’ve been opening the kimono for just about any corporate body or governmental department with the right amount of cash in their back pockets.

            When the infidel-denier witch hunt in science is properly exposed and brought to a halt, then perhaps we can rebuild the peer-review process so it has some validity once more. Climatology has further to go than most. Even if it could reasonably be called a science, which it’s not. It’s abstract math models and statistical twisting, with no basis in the observable, no repeatable experiment etc. etc. The scientific method appears to be dead to Climatology, which is accurate, given it’s not a real science.

            Until that happy future, the climate-scam is mostly politicised, criminal nonsense, conclusions in search of evidence, pimped by a low-IQ disaster-porn media circus.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            Interesting. You know what I didn’t use in my reply? Any reference to Mann. Even if you ignore all of Mann’s work… the data is still there.

            You can’t wish it away. Claims with no evidential support other than your say-so can’t make it go away.

            You probably ought to watch the TED talk by Gavin Schmidt about how modeling works. You do understand how the models work right?

            Oh yeah, I wrote a blog post about it. Which, you probably haven’t read.

            What’s really interesting is that you are no different than a Young Earth Creationist. I see the exact same style of argument, the same cherry-picking of data, the same attempts to discredit a scientist and use that to discredit science.

            I’m sorry that you think the way you do. But there’s still hope for you. You see, 10 years ago, I was a climate change denier, just like you. However, in my research, I learned what the science actually is like, how it works and how robust it is.

            I’m giving you the kindergarten stuff here. The people actually doing climate research are not in some (woefully underpaid) global conspiracy. They are guys, just like you and I, who go to work and do the best job that they can. Except their job is telling us that we humans have fucked up the planet. It’s our fault. Sorry, that’s the truth.

            Besides, it would be a damn shame if we cleaned up the air, stopped pollution and smog, stopped strip mining the planet, stopped destroyed hundreds of square miles of land… all for nothing, right? That’s sarcasm, in case you weren’t paying attention.

          • Phil T Tipp

            Oh dear. Snark and sarcasm are no substitute for real wit. You can keep the sanctimonious quasi-religious ‘there’s hope for you’ waffle too. It’s oily and slithering. Your’ truth’ is not ‘the truth’. This is why we have scientific debate. Questioning is the root of philosophy and is what fired the quest for knowledge. If you’ve given up on all that by adhering to the diktat of skewed ideology, then it’s I who should feel sorry for you. But I don’t. I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

          • Tim Tian

            Another paper. This is what, three now?

            Why don’t you show some evidence?

            http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010RG000345/full

          • Phil T Tipp

            Get back in yer box.

          • Tim Tian

            That isn’t evidence and it doesn’t nearly comply with your criteria.

            Onus Probandi, is the obligation that somebody presenting a new or remarkable idea has to provide evidence to support it. In a scientific context evidence is experimental or empirical data (although in some branches, well thought out mathematics may suffice). Once some evidence has been presented, it is up to the opposing “side” to disprove the evidence presented or explain why it may not be adequate. This sort of procedure happens constantly in the scientific method, repeating until everyone is happy that the data and explanation match.
            Denialists of evolution and global warming (you would be the latter) have a habit of merely ignoring evidence and claiming that the burden of proof still rests with the proponents of those concepts.

          • Tim Tian

            Would you like to present evidence?

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