Wednesday, 22 August 2012

2012 Earth Overshoot day - 22 August

Global Footprint Network has released its 2012 calculations.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 1992, Earth Overshoot Day fell on October 21. In 2002, Overshoot Day was on October 3. Given current trends in consumption, one thing is clear: Earth Overshoot Day tends to arrive a few days earlier each year.

Earth Overshoot Day (from a concept devised by the UK think tank new economics foundation) helps conceptualize the gap between what nature can regenerate, and how much is required to support human activities. Similar to the way a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, Global Footprint Network tracks humanity’s demand for, and supply of, natural resources and ecological services. Global Footprint Network’s calculations show that in just eight months, we have used up the renewable natural resources and CO2 sequestration that the planet can sustainably provide this year.

In the past year, severe economic and environmental crises have reverberated across the globe—ranging from the European debt predicament and extreme weather events to grain shortages, groundwater depletion and overfishing—affecting many among a world population that has surpassed the 7 billion mark.

Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, said:
Nations around the world, and particularly in the south of Europe, have started to painfully experience what it means to spend more money than what they earn. The resource pressure is similar to such financial overspending, and can become devastating. As resource deficits get larger, and resource prices remain high, the costs to nations become unbearable.
For most of human history, humanity has used nature’s services—to build cities and roads, provide food and create products, and absorb the CO2 generated by human activities—at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But sometime in the 1970s, we crossed a critical threshold. Human demand began outstripping what the planet could renewably produce, and we went into ecological overshoot.

Today, humanity is using the equivalent of just over 1.5 Earth’s worth of ecological resources and services. If current trends continue unchanged, we are on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century. Our ecological overspending has become a vicious cycle, in which we draw down more and more principal at the same time our level of consumption, or 'spending', grows. The social and economic costs could be staggering.

Dr. Wackernagel added:
From soaring fossil fuel prices to crippling national debts partly due to rising natural resource prices, our economies are now confronting the reality of years of spending beyond our means,” “If we are to maintain stable societies and productive lives, we can no longer sustain a widening budget gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require.
Organizations around the world are observing Earth Overshoot Day today with events to raise awareness of humanity’s Ecological Overshoot. Global Footprint Network is hosting a Tweet Chat on Twitter (@EndOvershoot) using the hashtag #OvershootDay at 8am, 1pm, and 6pm (Pacific Standard Time) today to discuss Ecological Overshoot and how the Ecological Footprint is calculated. That's 4pm, 9pm and 2am UK time.

Ecological Overshoot and the Global Economy

The global recession that began in October 2008 slowed humanity’s demand for resources and CO2 sequestration, but our consumption is still rising. To truly reverse trends without risk of greater economic downturns, resource limits must be at the core of decision-making. Current resource trends already cannot meet the needs of the planet’s 7 billion—and growing—population. About two billion people lack access to the resources required to meet their basic needs. As millions in emerging economies join the middle class, our resource consumption and the world’s ecological deficit will only increase.

China’s total Ecological Footprint—that is, its demand for natural resources and the services they provide—is the world’s largest, yet its per person Footprint remains modest. As its economy grows and its people prosper, China’s large population and increasing per capita consumption will have an ever-greater impact on the world’s widening ecological deficit. Already, we see how consumption patterns of individual countries grow global Overshoot.

- The per capita resource demands of the United States, which went into Overshoot on March 28, is still equivalent to the supply of more than four Earths.
- The per capita demands of Brazil, which went into Overshoot on July 6, requires the resources of just under two Earths.
- In Qatar, the typical citizen requires the resources of six and a half Earths.

Over the past few years, financial crises, civil unrest and environmental catastrophes have shaken several nations. Earth Overshoot Day offers a sobering reminder of the risks of ecological overspending—not just to humanity as a whole, but to nations, cities and businesses, whose long-term success and stability depend upon continued access to and sustainable consumption of natural resources.

It is possible to turn the tide and reverse current consumption trends. Global Footprint Network and its network of partners are working with organizations, governments and financial institutions around the globe to make decisions that are aligned with ecological reality—decisions that can help close the ecological budget gap and provide for a prosperous future in the face of changing and challenging resource trends.

If you would like to learn more about Earth Overshoot Day and Global Footprint Network’s work, or to make a donation to their work, go to .

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

"You are all individuals" . . . "I'm not!"

If you've seen the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), you'll probably recognise these words. When the hapless Brian has been followed - pursued, even - by credulous and demanding crowds, he takes refuge in the house of a woman friend. After spending the night with her, he flings open the shutters in the morning and is horrified to see the crowd waiting for him below. They start to chant and hail him as their leader.

'You've got it wrong,' he cries, 'you're all individuals.'

'Yes, master, we are all individuals,' they chant, as one.

'I'm not!' shouts a wag from the back of the crowd, jumping up and down.

Last week, I wrote that I had one more 'money' post to write, and I still do, but it can wait, because I want to think about something else this week. The Life of Brian quote reminds me of another, from Alan Watts, the Zen teacher. It's a fundamental mistake, he wrote, to imagine that a human being is an individual ego running round inside a bag of skin (see his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are).

I've found myself particularly thinking about all of this during the past two weeks of the Olympics. Stay with me . . . this post isn't actually going to be about sport per se, but about what the whole phenomenon of the Olympics can teach us. I'm no sports fan (except for singles tennis) but have found myself fascinated by the social-psychological event that has been going on. It's been a powerful reminder of the degree to which we are social beings, not individual isolates.

Many of the athletes spoke of the importance of the huge support they got from the crowd, and what a  difference it made. On the final Saturday, Britain's Mo Farah was running to win the men's 5,000m track race in the main stadium (after winning the 10,000m just a week before); one of the BBC's commentators said that the crowd was 'roaring him home', that there was a Mexican wave of sound following him round the circuit. In the men's tennis, Andy Murray swept past world number one, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets in the semi-final, and then went on to demolish his nemesis, Roger Federer, also in straight sets (6-2, 6-1, 6-4), to win gold. It wasn't the usual Wimbledon crowd there on Centre Court, but a vocally patriotic Olympics crowd, and they roared for Andy Murray without the undertone of anticipated disappointment that has accompanied British men's tennis for many decades. Not only that, Roger Federer - accustomed for so many years to being the darling of Centre Court - wasn't getting that kind of crowd support. Roger's game was flat, and Andy was just flying.

And many of the athletes, especially those in individual rather than team sports, spoke of the importance of being part of 'Team GB', and the difference it made to them. A couple of years ago Djokovic stepped up to a new level of tennis after winning Davis Cup for Serbia, and spoke of the difference that came in playing for his country. One of the tennis commentators at the Olympics said of Andy Murray: 'Ever since he put that Team GB shirt on, he's been a different player.'

So, what's going on here? What lies behind this phenomenon called 'home advantage'? A research  team has been following athletes of nations hosting the Olympics for many years now. In each case, in the period between being awarded the games, and the games actually happening, the home nation's athletes show a steady rise in testosterone levels, in both men and women - and raised testosterone results in better performance (which is why artifically raising it by doping is so effective). So the 'home advantage' isn't 'just psychological', it affects the physiology, the bodies, of the athletes.

There's something ancient, in evolutionary terms, going on here. Monkeys also show raised testosterone, giving them a fighting advantage, on their home range. If the moving gang fight strays off their own territory, their testosterone levels drop and they lose their advantage.

Way back in human evolution, when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, even a tiny advantage made a huge difference in a very uncertain world; your group was everything - a sole individual would die, and the tribe was the unit that survived. A band that worked together well, that was successful in getting food and keeping other groups off its home range, would pass it genes down to more people. So gene mutations that coded for high group cohesion and successful group peformance under pressure would be passed down to future generations. Hominids without these beneficial adaptations would eventually die out, being out-competed for essential resources by the more successful bands.

And the fact that we are here, now, in an industrial and post-industrial twenty-first century, tells us that our ancestors were the ones that survived. We are the inheritors of those genes, and this tribal physiology is hard-wired into us. At the Olympics we saw the tribe roaring for its champion, time after time. This is something ancient and primitive and all our modern 'sophistication' does not erase it. We roar for the champion, and the champion responds with enhanced performance.There were many, many Team GB athletes who, while not winning gold, posted a new personal best in their sport.

This deep and powerful sociality of the human species is often masked in our modern world, but it comes to the fore at times of powerful emotion. The Olympics constitute one such example, and other sporting contests often display such characteristics - the tribal nature of football is well-known. It may also come to the fore in families when someone dies - there's an experience of not quite knowing whose grief is whose; there's just an amount of 'family grief' washing around, and different family members experience and express it at different times. Some corporations deliberately seek to stimulate these emotions by rituals to consolidate loyalty to the company. And military training is designed to create close bonds between members of a platoon. Times of national mourning, and times of warfare are other obvious examples, and this variety demonstrates the different ways we define our 'tribe' at different times and for different events - out ancient behaviours have adapted and attached themselves to modern circumstances.

So, what can we take from all of this? In last Sunday's Observer newspaper, Will Hutton tried to draw some political and economic lessons. In his article 'Olympics: the key to our success can rebuild Britain's economy' he sought to draw lessons for the mainstream of politics:
We need politicians who understand why we were so successful at the 2012 Games. Cameron and Osborne do not. The lesson is simple. If we could do the same for economy and society, rejecting the principles that have made us economic also-rans and which the coalition has put at the centre of its economic policy, Britain could be at the top of the economic league table within 20 years.
But what of the community politics of sustainability, the informal economy, campaigning, working for a different way of doing things? The following day, Sarah  Bakewell had an article in The Guardian about something completely different (a novel way of attempting a crewed space mission to Mars) in which she wrote:
Also, what about Earth? The big puzzle facing Earth-dwellers at the moment is how to motivate ourselves to do things clearly worth doing, but lacking immediate pay-offs. Our feeble response to the environmental crisis is a glaring case. To outwit ourselves, we need to harness our own psychology in new ways, and trick ourselves into doing good.
Could there be a genius of human motivation out there, ready to dream up some psychologically astute Earth One project? It might rest on some strange or frightening ploy at first, but if it rescues life on Earth, we'll have it.
The task is harness this deep, and deeply effective, tribal instinct that we have seen during the Olympics and widen its application to all humanity, and the biosphere. Humans are an adaptable species, and we've already seen some of this during the Games. The roar of the crowd for our women athletes is already one such extension - the primitive tribe wouldn't have females in that position in the first place. The acclaim for Jamaica's Usain Bolt showed that we can move beyond national chauvinism. The next steps need to happen, and to happen fast for the preservation of life on Earth. This won't happen without disciplined spiritual practice (just for starters!) and one good place to begin - if you don't know it already - is the Buddhist practice of Loving-Kindness Meditation, which starts with ourselves and moves outwards to the whole cosmos.

And if you want think more about our hunter-gatherer ancestry, and what it can teach us now, I can't recommend too highly a book called The Old Way: a story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She was nineteen when her parents took the family to live among the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Fifty years later, after a life of writing and study, Thomas returns to her experiences with the Bushmen, one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on earth, and discovers among them an essential link to the origins of all human society. It's beautifully written, both detailed and evocative; one of the recommendations on the back cover says:
This is the owner's manual we need for humankind. The Old Way gives us critical insight into our past at a turning point in human history, from one of the few people who has seen our kind living as we have lived for most of our species' existence.

It throws a searching light on our modern world, and our modern ways of being and relating. It shows us where we came from, and what kind of physical and social world we are really best fitted for.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The financial crisis on stage and screen

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the film Margin Call but that's not the only manifestation of the money madness appearing in the arts world.

The current production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the National Theatre is another, perhaps surprising, example.

Timon of Athens isn't performed very often. It's a 'difficult' play, not solely by Shakespeare's hand, and there are disputes about how much of it is actually his - but it's certainly 'Shakespearian'. It's a play about, among other things, the mutual reinforcement of power and money, and it contrasts the élite with the mob. Well, in these times, that's just crying out for a treatment set in the City of London with the mob as the Occupy movement, which is what this new production is doing.

Interestingly, The Guardian's review of the play was written not by one of its regular theatre critics but by Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight's economics editor. His article is a very interesting read, even if you don't plan to see the play . . . but, having read it, you might decide you do want to!

And if you can't get along to the South Bank, the National Theatre will be broadcasting live from the theatre to cinema screens across the UK and abroad on Thursday 1 November. I'm going to see it at an independent cinema 10 minutes from where I live - a huge saving in time and money compared with getting all the way from the West Midlands to South London. You can search for a screening near you.

Another film made about the crisis, Inside Job (2010), is a documentary rather than a drama. Charles Ferguson is a former academic who made a fortune from computer software. He's funny, witty, tells it like it is, and is just furious that none of the bankers have gone to jail for the frauds that led to the crash. Ferguson interviews a range of the key players in the crisis, the big beasts in the financial world. Some of them seem oblivious, which is extraordinary; some of them squirm; some of them seek to justify themselves; a few refuse to speak on camera. It's truly eye-opening, even this long after the event, to put faces to the scandal.

The film won an Oscar for best documentary and you can listen to his acceptance speech.

Ferguson has now written a book (also called Inside Job) which fills in the background to his film and brings us up to date on what happened next. His argument, that corporate America has bought up politics wholesale, isn't new, of course. But he is particularly scathing about Obama, from whom we expected better. His government's alliance with the banks is particularly appalling, after all the hopes that were invested in the change from the Bush era. Ferguson's account of the hold that big finance has over academia is truly horrifying because it tells us that nothing escapes the clutches of Big Money.

Ferguson's furious energy, his righteous indignation, are delivered with a lightness of touch that keeps the non-specialist reader enagaged and entertained. You can read two extracts from the book:

Heist of the century: Wall Street's role in the financial crisis - Wall Street bankers could have averted the global financial crisis, so why didn't they? In this extract Charles Ferguson argues that they should be prosecuted

Heist of the century: university corruption and the financial crisis - Why was the response from US academic experts to the global financial crisis so muted? In this second extract Charles Ferguson argues that corruption in universities is deeply entrenched

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I've been posting here a lot about money! I think there's one more to come, and then I'll move on to other topics - promise!