The bottleneck is the edge of the world

Earlier today I wrote about the edge of the world because it’s Earth Overshoot Day. As I was assembling materials for Penn State’s Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability, I came back across a piece in Science Magazine called “Sustainable Development” by Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and has been special adviser to Ban-Ki Moon and Kofi Annan.

Sachs invokes E.O. Wilson’s concept of “the bottleneck.” Sachs characterizes the bottleneck, the critical period through which will navigate human-caused environmental harm, this way.

The fourfold increase of the human population during the past century, coupled with a roughly 4.5-fold increase of economic activity per person, has led to adverse anthropogenic effects on species extinction, ecosystem functions and biodiversity, climate change, groundwater depletion, soil nutrient losses, and zoonotic disease emergence and transmission, with far too little societal effort invested in mitigating these consequences. The world’s poorest people suffer the most because of their narrow margin of survival, lack of access to technologies, vulnerability to natural hazards, and fragility of the ecosystems in which they are concentrated.

In the 11 years since this article appeared, every one of those indicators has gotten worse. The global economy has gotten larger and faster which means that it chews through more of nature than it used to. Even though economists assure us that we are decoupling and reducing energy intensity, it isn’t actually slowing ecological degradation. Some would say that increased efficiency merely increases the efficiency of acquisition resulting in a rebound or backfire (see the Jevons Paradox). There are many species that are critically threatened and a bunch have gone extinct since Sachs wrote this: the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javanese rhino for example. Ecosystem functions are compromised the world over, from the filtering capacity of coastal wetlands to the carbon sinking of the boreal forests. The Ogalalla and other large aquifers are lower, climate change is accelerating as we dump more carbon into the atmosphere. The world’s poor are still very poor, prone to disease, and there are more of them than there were in ’04. It’s all rather frightening.

These things are what show us we are nearing the edge of the world.  Do we have the will and focus we need to build that bridge, to traverse the bottleneck? Sachs writes that “passing through the bottleneck will require a level of collective action that is nowhere yet in sight. Budget funding for the future technologies that could underpin sustainable development is a small fraction of military spending, and only a slight part of that spending is directed at the health, energy, and environmental needs of the world’s poorest people.”

It is in sight today. But it’s distant.

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