But the reports of every credible scientist in the world tell a different story. Evidence of the environmental crisis is now so abundant that only those committed to serious denial continue to contest the facts. While mainstream economists and politicians seem blind to the very real physical limits, environmentalists, scientists, academics, and others have raised concerns for decades.
There are literally hundreds of books and reports, from countless reliable and trustworthy sources, that document how things are going on the planet. Here are just a few highlights:
In July 2009, we reached 387.81 parts per million (ppm) of carbon
dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Leading scientists around the world
have identified 350 ppm as the maximum level that the atmosphere can
contain for the planet to remain as we know it.6
Toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals now show up in every body tested anywhere in the world, including in newborn babies.7
Indoor air pollution kills 1.6 million people per year, with outdoor air pollution taking another 800,000 lives each year.8
About one-fifth of the world's population—more than 1.2 billion people—experience water scarcity, and this resource is becoming increasingly scarce.9
Global income inequality is staggering. Currently, the richest 1 percent of people in the world have as much wealth and Stuff as the bottom 57 percent.10
So what happens when there's a subsystem like the economy that keeps growing inside of a system of a fixed size? It hits the wall. The expanding economic system is running up against the limits of our planet's capacity to sustain life. Economists project that, with current and projected rates of growth, developed countries will grow at 2 to 3 percent per year, and China and India at 5 to10 percent per year.11 Already, in generating today's volume of goods and services across the world, we're producing more than five times (closer to six, actually) the level of CO2 emissions to which we'll need to reduce by 2050 in order to avoid total climate chaos.12
So that's the conundrum. Then factor in the impact of raising the standard of living for the world's poor (which inevitably means increasing their carbon dioxide emissions). With carbon dioxide overloading our fragile atmosphere, and our demands on all the other life-sustaining services and resources that the earth provides, we're stressing the planet beyond its limits. Put simply, if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume, and dispose of our Stuff—what I sometimes call the take-make-waste model—the economy as it is will kill the planet. Look at the news coming through as I write these words: the financial markets have collapsed and were only partially resuscitated thanks to vast Wall Street/Washington bailouts; food prices are erratic and causing misery both for farmers and for the world's hungry; carbon dioxide levels are rising to life-threatening levels, and resources like oil, fish, and fresh water become scarcer every day.