We would need 1.6 planet Earths to maintain our current levels of consumption and waste production. How we can survive climate change and repair the damage

Fire consumes a home as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, tears through Doyle, Calif., on Saturday, July 10, 2021
Burning in California: Temperature anomalies, droughts, floods and wildfires are becoming a new normalCredit: Noah Berger / AP

Yosef Gotlieb Aug. 5, 2021 1:37 PM

Global warming, species loss and resource degradation are interrelated crises that are occurring with unparalleled speed and intensity. These threats are nature-based, but are but are not “natural” in origin. Rather, they derive from the socioeconomic trajectory that defines the modern period. Modernization has not only produced a patchwork of affluence and poverty, it also hurtles us toward environmental catastrophe. Grasping this is key to coping with the challenges ahead.

The negative impacts we are experiencing are due to the way that societies have utilized natural resources, consumed, and created mountainous waste since the Industrial Revolution and at an accelerated pace after World War II. This period is now termed the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which anthropogenic changes are impacting planetary systems (atmospheric, marine and land-based) at scales similar to natural forces.

Commercial agriculture, industrialization and urbanization are key drivers of global change. The frenzied consumption after WWII led to a six-fold increase of resource extraction, including biomaterials, fossil fuels, minerals and metals. These processes have transformed land cover patterns and eliminated ecosystems and essential environmental services. Along with our dependence on fossil fuels, these human-induced changes on the earth’s surface and its seas drive global warming.

Before the Industrial Revolution, 50% of the earth’s land area was covered by forests. These have been reduced by a quarter while the area of cropland has nearly doubled and lands devoted to livestock grazing have more than tripled. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased by 165% since 1970.

The area taken up by cities and the built environment has doubled since the early 1990s. The weight of human-made objects is now estimated to exceed that of all living matter on the planet.

Building high in Dubai
Building high in DubaiCredit: Rastislav Sedlak SK / Shuttersto

As a result, a million species, many of which have yet to be adequately documented, stand to be lost within decades. The extinction rate now is estimated to be more than 100-1,000 times that of the preceding 10 million years, due to habitat destruction caused mainly to satisfy international market demand for such commodities as sugar, animal feed, meat, minerals and coffee. .

Eliminating these biological systems leads to a loss of species and a decline in the genetic diversity needed for ecosystem health. Human and other biological communities have less resilience against disease, pests and a changing climate as a result.

The oceans hold 90% of the heat added by global warming and have become less hospitable to marine life due to the rising temperatures, oxygen loss and increased acidity, which affect spawning cycles and migratory patterns and damages key ecosystems like coral reefs and mangrove forests. Temperature changes in sea and air currents affects energy fluxes and create more intense storms and severe weather events.

Due to over-exploitation resulting from large-scale commercial fishing and mining and the methods they employ, fishing stocks have declined. Invasive species have found their way into waterways everywhere, causing further ecological disruption. Toxic algae blooms are becoming more common.

Chinese military personnel clear blue green algae from a beach in Qingdao
Chinese military personnel clear blue green algae from a beach in QingdaoCredit: AP

Despite recognition that our carbon-based economy is warming the planet, May 2021 levels of carbon dioxide spiked to a record 420 ppm. According to NASA, the hottest years of the past century have been the last seven.

Meanwhile, waste is legion. Fifty percent of wastes in the rich countries is potentially reusable and represents enormous value that could be used to replace many of the resources we are effectively taking from future generations.

Given the scale of havoc that has been inflicted on our natural resource base and the physical systems that sustain life, how do we begin to repair the damage?

‘Planetary overshoot’

Since World War II, global economic activity has increased 16-fold and the proportion of people living in absolute poverty has fallen from 60% to 10%. The average lifespan has risen from 46 to 73 years (pre-coronavirus).

But these gains have been uneven and have required massive material inputs and energy requirements that are constantly on the rise. To satisfy the economies of scale that make mass production profitable, demand has been driven by contrived social “needs,” promoting disposable products and employing marketing that pushes us to consume without end. 

This hallmark of contemporary society is intrinsically toxic. “We have degraded the biosphere to the point where the demands we make of its goods and services far exceed its ability to meet them on a sustainable basis,” writes Sir Partha Dasgupta, the lead author of a recently published study commissioned by the British Government.

We are in a situation of “planetary overshoot” characterized by resource depletion that exceeds the capability of natural systems to replenish them.

May 29, 2013: A line of Boeing 787 jets sit on the floor nearing completion at the company's production plant in Everett, Was
At an assembly line for Boeing 787s in Washington: Our habits of flying about have to changeCredit: Elaine Thompson / AP

Our ecological footprint, a coarse metric that nonetheless hammers home the point that our resource budget has been vastly overrun, suggests that humanity would need 1.6 planet Earths to maintain our current levels of consumption and waste production.  

Accordingly, the planetary emergency that we now face is foundationally an economic problem wrapped in ideologies and values which ignore the limits of planetary resources and assume that natural systems can be exploited without consequence. The products of these fallacies include migration crises, food insecurity, water scarcity, public health emergencies and extreme and unpredictable weather.

Such factors have been shown to underlie the Syrian civil war and strife extending from sub-Saharan Africa to Central America.

Market economics, then, is fundamentally unsustainable. Fortunately, new economic approaches are being advanced that suggest a road forward — assuming that we limit ourselves to achieving an adequate living standard for all rather than satisfying ever-increasing “wants”. This can only be achieved by viewing sustainable resource use as the foundation of our material existence.

The fallacy of ‘green stocks’

An early attempt at sustainable economics began in 1989 with the establishment of the International Society of Ecological Economics, which factored nature’s costs and environmental services into the equation – an omission in liberal economic analysis that, in hindsight, is truly astounding.

But few then were prepared to reject liberal economics on environmental grounds. Rather, with environmental stresses becoming more apparent, reforms such as the polluter pay principle were extended to constrain fossil fuel use and to absorb remediation costs connected to it.

Such instruments as emissions trading systems and cap and trade schemes along with “green” stocks and bonds created a financial industry that was worth $31 trillion by mid-2019, according to Bloomberg.

However, by mainly focusing on the energy sector, the green market largely ignores the reality that decarbonizing the economy is not enough. Curtailing fossil fuel use is indispensable to solving the crises we face, but if we leave our voracious appetites and wastefulness unaddressed, the emergency will not abate.

Contrasting with the green market approach, which largely remains committed to keeping the previous order intact, is “regenerative capitalism” or “regenerative economy,” which integrates ecological requirements and intergenerational equity as central pillars of a new economic order. Sustainability, rather than profit-driven growth, is viewed as the essential goal of sound economics.  

Inherent to the new economics is the concept of circularity, a departure from the prevailing linear model whereby resources are extracted to manufacture products that we then discard. The cornerstone of circular economy is eliminating waste by reducing it, reconditioning and reusing goods, and recovering discards from the waste stream that can be reemployed as inputs for products and energy. This implies a more encompassing notion of recycling, entailing the cyclical use of resources so that waste is minimized while the full potential of materials is maximized.

The circular economy approach is being backed by major players. The European Union announced its Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020 as part of the European Green New Deal, which was inaugurated this month.  Singapore has adopted a Zero Waste Masterplan.  PACE, the Platform for Accelerating Circular Economy has elaborated action agendas for major economic branches, including food, textiles, electronics and plastics, including in developing regions. These are promising developments.

In Central Valley, California, farmers desperate for water are resorting to dowsing, aka "water witching"
In Central Valley, California, farmers desperate for water are resorting to dowsingCredit: ROBYN BECK – AFP

Hot in the city

Many of the new initiatives that aimed at sustainable resource are focused on cities. Equipping urban areas with adaptive solutions is especially important given that the urban population today comprises nearly 60% of the world total with an additional 2.5 billion more urban dwellers expected by 2050.

Rethinking cities received a considerable symbolic boost with the signing of the September 2020 Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy in which municipal leaders vow to jointly seek a “low-emission and climate-resilient future.” But symbolic gestures are not enough, and moving onward to concrete plans and activities is vital.

An example of how this is being put in place is the Amsterdam Circular Strategy 2020-2025, which aims to reduce the use of raw materials by 50% over current levels by 2030 and to become 100% circular by 2050. The city proposes to do so through innovative circular systems in the food and organic waste streams, reducing consumption, limiting acceptable practices and operations to an “ecological ceiling” consistent with the planetary boundaries. Similarly, Barcelona has declared a “climate emergency” and has put in place a broad action program. Such initiatives will have to spread and interface with national programs of similar or greater ambitiousness. 

Cities today consume 78% of energy and are responsible for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. In view of urban heat island effects, the realization that growing food locally has multiple environmental and health benefits, and the need to reduce emissions concentrations, green roofs and walls are spreading throughout urban space. Trees and parks are being added and motorized transport is being curtailed in favor of cycling and walking.

These steps along with zero-carbon operations, energy-efficient manufacturing, circular economy and similar activities are cornerstones of the EU’s European Green Deal.     

As temperature anomalies, drought, floods, storms, wildfires and other crises become more common, solutions such as China’s sponge city concept applied to manage urban flooding through the creation of multi-functional blue and green zones assume great importance. Rosario, Argentina, the country’s third largest city, is tackling rising heat and erratic rainfall while reducing dependency on food imports and increasing employment through agroecological production along a green belt of underutilized or unused urban lands.

Meanwhile flooding in the Netherlands ruins a sugar beet crop
Meanwhile flooding in the Netherlands ruins a sugar beet cropCredit: VINCENT JANNINK – AFP

Green cities and Earth stewardship

The greening of cities will require an enhanced scrupulous guardianship of rural areas, wilderness, grasslands, woodlands and coastal zones, which include the flora and fauna we depend as part of the ecological web. Viewed by market economics as “empty” spaces that await “development,” these assets have been plundered and converted to supply ever-rising demand, thereby exhausting and impoverishing the planet’s resource base. Restoring and conserving these systems are key to sustaining the earth’s life support system. Is this realistic?

Natural limits are absolute, so meeting these goals are pivotal to the future of human life on this planet. Contrary to the hubris of the economic thinking that led to the current crises, no amount of capital or high technology can overcome these physical constraints and there is no choice but to recognize them.

So, while the greening of cities is important, of similar significance is earth stewardship, the interdisciplinary, science-based management of global resources from the local to the global scales. To protect, restore and make sustainable use of our resource base will require ongoing monitoring, knowledge-rich systems and the application of best practices. New livelihoods ranging from habitat restoration to urban agriculture will be needed.

The production systems we use, the fuels that power them and the materials we apply to construct the built environment and to manufacture the products we consume are major underpinnings of the planetary crises. Identifying solutions and using materials and technologies that are that are environmentally, socially and economically appropriate to effectively meet the challenges ahead.

Part of the transition to a sustainable future means pivoting from a carbon-based economy to a bioeconomy, wherein materials ranging from biomass, recovered wastes and other biological resources are used to produce food, materials, fuels, fibers and biodegradable or recyclable products. The European Union has positioned circular bioeconomy as a building block of its adaptation programs.   

Achieving ‘the good life’

Rising heat, aridity and changing precipitation patterns are already evident in Israel. Given this, and against the backdrop of housing shortages and our gridlocked transportation system, more adaptive forms of human settlement will be needed.

Technology over the past century has brought us many amenities. It has also lulled us into an unwavering belief that more sophisticated technologies are the ultimate solution for all problems.

But many of the technologies have become part of the problem, requiring huge material and energy inputs and causing untold damage to landscapes and ecological systems. Further, many of the products of these technologies are showing themselves to be vulnerable to the climate and other crises we are witnessing today. Whether they are towering dams that are cracking under the weight of floodwaters or multi-storied buildings that cannot withstand rising seas and intensifying environmental stress, many monuments of modernization have proven surprisingly fragile.

We must transit from choosing materials, equipment and schemes that are grandiose, “state-of-the-art” and impresses us with their bells and whistles to selecting appropriate technologies that are coherent with the geographic, ecological, landscape, cultural settings in which they are used.

For example, electric vehicles are theoretically better than those using fossil fuel, a long and thin country like Israel has no business being a multi-car-per-family society.

In the same vein, to satisfy the increased Israeli appetite for meat would require converting much of the country into rangeland. Since that isn’t feasible, we import, abetting deforestation elsewhere to expand land for cattle grazing and to grow the feed they eat, thereby exacerbating the planetary warming that we and the rest of the world are now experiencing.

Cows are seen before an auction at the Liniers Cattle Market in Buenos Aires, on July 1, 2021
A cattle auction market in Buenos Aires, July 2021Credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT – AFP

Worldwide, we have to make lifestyle changes and revise our views about what constitutes the “good life.” It can’t be based on rising meat consumption, frequent trips abroad on fossil-fuel powered aircraft, cruises, or shopping until we drop to purchase unending products that will fall apart or go out of fashion by next season.

Israel specifically needs policies that better distribute the population. Policies (and non-policies) that have enabled the over-concentration of the population in the greater Tel Aviv area taxes infrastructure and neglects the only major repositories of natural resources this country possess: the Galilee and the Negev. Improving conditions in the periphery serviced by an efficient nationwide public transport system has to become a priority.

With global supply chains likely to grow increasingly unstable, encouraging local sustainable food production that provides a measure of self-sufficiency and promoting the local manufacture of products that last and that are skillfully crafted from reconditioned materials will make us more resilient.

Israeli firms that are developing plant-based food alternatives is one favorable path forward. Another involves the work of researchers in Israel and elsewhere who are creating biomaterials (for instance, from beached jellyfish) to replace the plastic we now use for toothbrushes, containers and shopping bags. Genetically modified plant fibers are being used for packaging and textiles. Smarter design is creating better solutions for passively cooling and heating buildings, conserving water, and lighting interiors.

The hallmarks of a new modernity include both a commitment to safeguarding nature and redirecting human ingenuity from its pyrrhic fixation on material acquisitions to producing conditions of life that are satisfying and lasting.

For Israel to remain viable in an increasingly harsh environment, we will need to focus on cultivating our “nest” and husband our national resources. This is a strategic challenge on par with the military ones that confront us.

Inaction is not an option

The news about global warming is grim, but inaction is not an option. A small window still remains to forestall irreparable damage and leave future generations a livable planet. All aspects of social and individual life, including diets, transportation, production, consumption, housing, the clothes we wear and our leisure-time activities will have to be rethought and refashioned. There is an opportunity in this: building stronger, fairer and healthier societies.

Many of the solutions will be local in scope, aligning place-specific conditions with appropriate interventions. But acting locally will also require us to think and cooperate regionally and globally. Without sharing experiences and engaging in concerted action, no place will be exempt from the perils ahead.

We have the capacity to deal with these momentous challenges — if people everywhere mobilize and make this civilizational turn together and in time. The question is whether there is sufficient understanding, leadership and resolve to do so.

The answer is not up to nature. It depends on us. This begins with changing our individual and collective consciousness, accepting that the road we have been on leads to a dead-end, and that there is a way forward that will soon close if we don’t move decisively and resolutely.

Dr. Yosef Gotlieb, an international development and climate adaptation specialist, is on the faculty of the David Yellin College of Education.