Tenet 5

Humanity has been disregarding
Nature’s limits

Every day we hear about examples of our disregarding Nature’s limits. Climate change, declining fisheries, biodiversity loss, pollution, and peak oil are some examples. These symptoms of our disregard for the physical and ecological laws that govern the lives of all organisms are telling us that we’re not living in a sustainable way. Our choice is to deal with the symptoms; however,air pollutionthat won’t be enough. We also have to deal with the root causes of the problem.

For example, the most comprehensive review, to date, of ecosystem change for human well-being was conducted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA).1 This audit of the Earth’s natural capital involved the work of more than 1,360 scientists worldwide. In a summary report, they wrote: “Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.”

They continue: “The provision of food, fresh water, energy, and materials to a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex systems of plants, animals, and biological processes that make the planet habitable.” Most disconcerting, however was the comment of the MEA Board:2 “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural Ozone holefunctions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted (our emphasis).” This is the legacy we’re leaving future generations.

In 2006, The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released their Living Planet Report3. The report deals with two indicators: the Living Planet Index, which reflects the health of the planet’s ecosystems, and the Global Ecological Footprint, which shows the extent of humanity’s demand on those ecosystems.The Living Planet Index suggests that since 1970—within a human generation—we have lost 40% of the natural capital of the planet. This is a reflection of the impacts from our Global Ecological Footprint.

Global ecological footprint

Global ecological footprint (red) showing humanity exceeded the carrying capacity of the biosphere (green) in the late 1980s and is now amassing a significant ecological debt (orange).

The Global Ecological Footprint to 2003 indicates that humanity is using, on average, 2.2 global hectares per person of productive lands, wetlands, and oceans in order to maintain civilization at our current average standard of living. Unfortunately there are only 1.8 global hectares per person of productive habitats available. In addition, these figures are “ignoring the needs of wild species,” which we cannot do for they are integral to ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services, the life support services of the planet. So there is little doubt that we did exceed the carrying capacity of the planet by the mid 1980s at the latest and we’re now eating into the natural capital of the biosphere instead of living off its “interest.” We are currently amassing a significant ecological debt that our children and their children will undoubtedly pay for.

…Tenet 6


1 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005a. Ecosystems and human well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C. (Accessed 20 November 2007). Note: this link opens a new window.
2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005b. Living beyond our means: natural assets and human well-being. Statement from the board. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 28 pp. (Accessed 10 November 2007). Note: this link opens a new window.
3 World Wide Fund for Nature. 2006. The Living Planet Report. (Accessed 10 November 2007). Note: this link opens a new window.

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