The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

ImageYesterday, it was announced that Drs. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will receive the Blue Planet Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for their work in creating the Ecological Footprint—a tracking or measurement of the impact we have on our planet. Since 2003, Rees, Wackernagel and their Global Footprint Network have used a data-determined metric as a monitoring device tracking how sustainable (or unsustainable) we are living. Their group and global partners now span six continents and apply the impact of the Footprint to many projects. As of 2012, they report that humans are in overshoot mode because we are using the equivalent of more than 1.5 planets to provide the resources taken, and to absorb our GHG emissions. One of their goals is to “increase international media outreach to broaden our message.” The work of this group is remarkable, and can serve as an important tool as we assess and then correct the detrimental effects we impose on our planet. They are to be truly commended.

But knowing that we are in an overshoot, unsustainable mode and actually taking the right steps to correct this are two separate issues. It is how we can best use this tool that becomes the question. The Global Footprint Network make it perfectly clear that they are “not anti-trade, anti-technology, or anti-GDP.” They are informational based only and “make no judgment about the value of technologies” or “the benefits, disadvantages or fairness of trade.” As such, it is left up to our nations’ leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and individuals to first become aware of the information provided by the Ecological Footprint and then to create change—if sustainability is their goal. The Global Footprint Network has come to the same conclusions as many other organizations in that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” However, as with other organizations, the Global Footprint Network stumbles with providing specific reasons and then a viable direction as to resolution—we need a clear pathway toward sustainability, not simply hearing recited observations that we are not there. Fundamental change is in order and it begins with conveying realities.

I can help with the clarification. This would be my approach: Our global demand to eat animals, without proper economic regard or reflection of resource use, has caused food production systems to become the largest contributing factor to our unsustainable Ecological Footprint. The raising, slaughtering, and consumption of animals—livestock, wild caught fish, and aquaculture—is the primary cause of Global Depletion. It is not a factory farm or “agribusiness” problem. It’s an eating animals problem. Our demand to eat animals is responsible for 30-51% of all anthropogenic ghg emissions and climate change, 80% of the deforestation of tropical rainforests, 100% of the overgrazing, 100% of the fisheries collapse, 100% of the food insecurity issues (with factors we can control), and at least 50% of the rapid extinction of terrestrial and oceanic species. This is what needs to be said.

So Drs. Rees and Wackernagel are quite right in stating that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” They, and the world however, need to identify the reasons, spell out the fact that although there are other contributing factors, our food choices as they involve animals and animal products are the largest single issue. We need to use this valuable information to create change, not simply point our finger at a generality that a problem exists. Although specifying the major cause of our ecological overshoot appears to be difficult for everyone to do, it is actually the easiest to identify and correct—simply begin eating all plant-based foods. No animals. Now.

I encourage everyone to take the information Rees and Wackernagel have so skillfully assembled, assign the major causative factor for overshoot, make the change to a fully plant based diet and then inspire others to follow suit. We have the information. Let’s do something with it.

Dr. O

2 responses to “The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

  1. One additional complicating factor is that networked systems may fail completely before the resource is completely exhausted. This could happen either to the economy or to natural systems.

    The possibility of a “runaway greenhouse effect” is one example. Beyond a certain point, melting Arctic ice leads to further warming, leading to more melting ice, and thawing the permafrost, and so forth in spiral of one effect reinforcing others. Another example is some fisheries (I believe the North Atlantic), which are not recovering even though fishing has been greatly restricted. This could be due to people violating the ban, or insufficient controls, but it also could simply be that we’ve altered the ecosystem and it can’t recover. A third example is the economy. We’re not out of money, but the financial system nearly collapsed in 2008 and it looks like we’re headed for another crisis.

    So it may be even worse than the “ecological footprint” concept implies, as I believe Drs. Rees and Wackernagel would agree. This is a very difficult area to quantify, we’re experimenting with the entire planet, and we may only get one chance to make the experiment!

    Do you know if either Drs. Rees or Wackernagel are vegetarians or vegans?

    • Excellent comment, Keith. Regarding your point about failing “network systems,” we are already witnessing this in many fisheries in our oceans, not just the North Atlantic, where cultural and economic incentives dictate the establishment of unsustainable quotas (“total allowable catch”) by organizations. This then leads to an irreversible spiraling downward of other component species and interrelated mechanisms within the complex and poorly understood ecosystem of the targeted fish. Examples of this abound: hoki, tuna, cod, haddock, pollock, lobster, menhaden, hake, etc. Regarding your question if either Dr. Rees or Wackernagel are vegetarian or vegan, it would be interesting to know, of course. But, it doesn’t at all impact the overriding perspective of my blog because if they were not, it is consistent with so many other well intentioned individuals and institutions that are simply unable to close the gap of disconnect. If they are vegetarian or vegan, then it becomes just another frustrating display of misusing a platform due to their ‘tread lightly’ approach. Thank you for your input.

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