How much longer can we 'overshoot'?


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    Kay Ryssdal talks with professor and author Jared Diamond about the lessons of history in his latest book, Collapse. Diamond warns that within 50 years, there will be no such thing as a "First World" living standard.

    - Margaret Koval

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    Cover of the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

    - Penguin Press

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a technical term for what we're doing as we eat, shop, drive and go about our daily lives. The word is "overshoot" -- when a population uses up resources faster than they can be replaced.

Today, we're consuming about 30 percent more trees, fish and fossil fuels than the planet can regenerate. We can run a deficit like this for a little while, but there are limits to how big a hole we can dig before it gets too deep to get out of.

To help understand those limits we spoke with Jared Diamond. He's a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. You might know him better though his books -- Collapse, among others. When we talked, I asked him whether we've overshot our resources already:

Jared Diamond: Of course we are in overshoot and everybody knows that we are in overshoot -- and we are overshooting the things that people talk most about. First thing we're running out of is oil, and everybody knows it. Second thing we're running out of is water. Something like 70 percent of the fresh water in the world is already utilized. Topsoil -- we're exploiting it and it's running off into the ocean. We've already exhausted something like maybe half of the topsoil that was originally in the Great Plains. And then fish and forests...

RYSSDAL: Is the rate of use increasing? Are things getting worse more quickly than they did 20 years ago?

Diamond: Yes, things are getting worse more quickly, for obvious reasons -- namely, the human population is increasing, and worse yet, average consumption rates are increasing. That's to say, out of the world's six-and-a-half-billion people, the majority are in the so-called Third World, but they are working hard to catch up.

RYSSDAL: The same way that I would imagine there's no one thing you can point to where you'd say that's the tipping point of decline, is there one thing that can be done to reverse that decline?

Diamond: Yes, and that is to stop looking for the one thing that we could do to reverse the decline. The reason is that there are about a dozen major problems and we got to solve them all. If we solve 11 of those problems, but we don't solve the water problem, we're finished. Or if we solve 11 of those problems but we don't solve the problem of topsoil and agriculture, we're finished. So we've got to solve all 12 problems and not look for that one problem that's most important.

RYSSDAL: It seems to me what we're missing is the "or else" part of this discussion... There's a whole list of things we have to fix -- what happens if we don't?

Diamond: History is full of the "or elses." For example, the most advanced Native American society of the New World, the Maya, had astronomy and astronomical observatories and writing and books. They chopped down their trees, they ran into water problems, and the big Maya cities that American tourists go to visit today, they go abandoned.

RYSSDAL: Are we seeing those crashes anywhere today?

Diamond: Absolutely. The African country of Rwanda, the most densely population country in Africa, began to get deforested, massive problems of soil erosion, too many people and not enough food... And in 1994 Rwandans transiently quote "solved" -- if I can put it in quotes -- their population problems in the most awful way imaginable. Namely, six million Rwandans killed, one million Rwandans in brutal ways, and drove another two million into exile. That's an example of a country that did not master its environmental problems.

RYSSDAL: How much time to we have left?

Diamond: If we carried on as we are now, then I would expect that we will not have a First World lifestyle anywhere sometime between 30 and 50 years from now.

RYSSDAL: Concentrates the mind...

Diamond: Yes it does. To know that you could get shot tomorrow does grab your attention.

RYSSDAL: Jared Diamond teaches geology at UCLA and is the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

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An "alternative view" to Jared Diamond's Collapse:

Jerry Taylor: The case for sustainability seems reasonable enough. After all, who is for "unsustainability"? But trying to pin down what sustainability means is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.

One of the more popular definitions comes from the U.N., which defines sustainability as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." But how can we reasonably be expected to know what the needs of people in 2107 might be? The challenges they might face are no more obvious to us than our present-day challenges might be to people living in 1907.

Nevertheless, the U.N. definition can be read as a call to improve human welfare over time. An entire profession has grown up around that proposition. It is known as economics. Accordingly, let me suggest that Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was the world's first and best blueprint for sustainable development as defined by the U.N.

Some understand sustainability as a call to protect the natural resource base from deteriorating so that future generations will be as blessed as we are. But the wealth created by exploiting resources is often more beneficial than the wealth preserved by "banking" those resources for future use. Otherwise, there would be little point in exploiting resources for commercial use in the first place.

Are present generations truly worse off because past generations drew down stocks of minerals and metals to make advanced satellites, build modern industry, and -- through the wealth thereby created -- develop advanced medicines and dozens of other life-enhancing technologies and practices? I don't think so.

Fine, you might say. But isn't there a case for making sure that important resources are maintained at a "minimum critical level" and that the proceeds of their use be preserved for future generations? Sure -- but that's functionally indistinguishable from the mission to maximize human welfare over time.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with sustainability. It just doesn't add much to the intellectual conversation.

Jerry Taylor is a senior fellow at the CATO Institute.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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