Scientist Stephen Hawking argues that since one day we may have to leave Planet Earth, we may as well get started on the project.
But if we can’t live successfully on our own home planet, what on earth (or anywhere else) makes us think we can do better somewhere else?
Still, Hawking sort of has a point. In less than 20 years, we’re going to need two more planet Earths to keep us living the way we do now. And since we don’t have two more Earths, that means we need to do something about the way we live. (Oh, and if everyone in the world lived the way people do in the United States, we’d need four Earths to support our consumption.)
All of this is the bottom line of what nations will be discussing at the EarthSummit 2012 – aka the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, aka Rio+20 because the conference will be back in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years since the first such get-together there in 1992.
In preparation for the event the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has produced a colorful Living Planet Report 2012, explaining some of the issues and suggesting what we can do, since we only have one Earth, to make life bearable in the years to come.
The report was formally issued yesterday from the International Space Station by WWF Ambassador and Dutch Astronaut, André Kuipers.
“We only have one Earth,” he said. “From up here I can see humanity’s footprint, including forest fires, air pollution and erosion.”
The WWF survey, issued every two years, shows we humans are still consuming far more than the Earth can replenish, along with a widening and “potentially catastrophic” gap between the ecological footprints of rich and poor nations.
“The report is clear that we’re still going downhill, that our ecological footprint, the pressure we put on the earth’s resources, continues to rise so we’re now using 50% more resources that the earth can replenish and biodiversity continues to decline,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International.
“This meeting should be delivering transformational change. What is on the table is business as usual – completely inadequate goals and a total lack of urgency.”
The report lists the world’s top 10 polluting countries, ranked on the basis of their consumption of renewable resources versus their ability to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 emissions. Dominating the list are high-income countries, whose average ecological footprint is now five times that of low-income nations. Top of the list are Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Denmark, Belgium and the United States.
The report’s Living Planet Index tracks the health of the world’s ecosystems by monitoring 9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species. It shows a near 30 percent drop in biodiversity since 1970, and an even faster decline in the tropics where it’s 60 percent.
“We need to see real leadership from the governments of the world coming together to commit themselves to step up to this challenge,” Leape said.
Are we going to see such leadership? Probably not. Right now, the many nations involved are bogged down in negotiations over the desired outcome of the conference, and have just agreed to hold another five days of discussion.
“This meeting should be delivering transformational change,” Daniel Mittler, the leader of Greenpeace’s delegation to Rio+20, said. “What is on the table is business as usual – completely inadequate goals and a total lack of urgency.”
Three other major findings in the Living Planet Report:
- Global biological diversity has declined 28 percent since 1970. Sixty percent of this decline has taken place in the tropics. Tracked populations of freshwater tropical species have fallen by nearly 70 percent – greater than any species’ decline measured on land or in our oceans.
- Global water use for agriculture has increased substantially. 2.7 billion people live in areas that experience severe water shortages for at least one month of the year. The land area under formal irrigation has increased 21 percent in 20 years. Irrigation accounts for 70 percent of water taken from rivers and underground reserves. Crops are responsible for 92 percent of the human Water Footprint.
- The U.S. has the fifth largest Ecological Footprint per person in the world. If everyone in the world lived like the average U.S. resident, then humanity would need more than four Earths to keep up with humanity’s consumption and carbon emissions. If everyone lived like the average resident of Indonesia, for example, only two-thirds of a planet would be needed.
Trying to leave Earth, as Stephen Hawking proposes, in hopes we can get our act together somewhere else in the galaxy seems like an exercise in futility. But continuing on our present course is an exercise in catastrophe.
The Living Planet Report 2012 is here. See also EarthSummit 2012 and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development