Deficit Day

According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), today marks the point at which “humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” They call it Overshoot Day.

Most of the analogies I see in the press use financial lingo and banking talk to describe this very new phenomenon.

After all, we only starting using more timber, fish stocks and arable land than could be replaced by natural processes in the 1970s. The same is true for the levels of human-generated carbon emissions in relation to how much the planet can naturally process over the course of a year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

It used to be that this ‘deficit spending’ of resources only began late in the year. For 2015, it already arrives six days earlier than one year ago.

But financial descriptions don’t really persuade me, especially in these days of banking institutions that seem to teeter on the edge of financial volcanoes without ever actually falling in.

After all, deficit spending is what we humans, as individuals and communities and nations, do all the time. We live on credit and debt is a shadow dancer for most adults.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

There was a time in human history when we lived like most other species on the planet. If we ate all our stocks and there was nothing left to hunt or gather, we either moved on or we perished.

Animals and plants with an overpopulation in their habitat, faced with a lack of food or resources and made vulnerable to hunger and disease, see their populations shrink in the most unpicturesque manner.

We humans have mostly managed to get around these fundamental restrictions with ingenuity, intelligence, an overwhelming desire for more and sometimes, just dumb luck.

It’s estimated that we now ‘consume’ resources equivalent to 1.6 of Earth’s capacity, i.e. we use what it would take almost two Earth’s to produce and process, every year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Regardless of how we describe this process of overuse – as a deficit, as improvidence, as thoughtless or as greedy – what is profoundly different between the banking world and the natural world is that, at some point, no bailout tactics will be available.

Banking analogies? We should be so lucky.

No matter what humans might think of ourselves and our vast creativity, we are not too big to fail.

Acorus calamus. From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

Acorus calamus.
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

 

Telling Time

There’s a new chill in the morning air, in spite of unseasonable warmth. Winter is still around the corner, according to the calendar, but it’s still as warm as late summer. We wore shorts yesterday. A few roses shoot another round of late blossoms that might cost the plants dearly, a couple of the tomato plants are pushing out tiny doomed tomatoes even as the leaves turn and fall.

I can see the confusion all around me – I live in an area that, while under heavy construction, still counts as rural. Out my front windows are houses, Geneva in the distance; behind the house are only meadows, forest, a stream and then the Jura mountains. Here, nature and I still interact directly, I can see her changes and moods beyond temperature and precipitation.

Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. That number is expected to rise to between 70-80% by 2050.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid. Source: Guardian/UNFPA Click the image for a full view.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid.
Source: Guardian/UNFPA
Click the image for a full view.

And that means that, even more than today, most people will have a relationship to the natural world that is determined by city planners, landscapers, with human needs and requirements paramount. How are we supposed to understand sustainability when most Earth dwellers won’t be directly confronted with changes to the natural world that still lays outside the cities, but which impacts the cities every day?

We live by our human clocks – nature’s clock runs on its own time.

Bril, a Japanese design collective, has designed a clock that tries to import nature’s time into human homes.

The Coniferous Clock Image: Bril/Dezeen

The Coniferous Clock
Image: Bril/Dezeen

It’s a Coniferous Clock, a time-device made entirely of cedar, with no hands or numbers.

It starts the year green and slowly browns over the course of an entire year.

According to Dezeen, “The Coniferous Clock references traditional sugidama, also known as asakebayashi: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together, clipped into a sphere and hung up when sake – Japanese rice wine – was pressed following the rice harvest. When the cedar leaves had dried and the sugidama had turned completely brown, it was a signal that the sake was ready to drink.”

Bril co-founder Fumiaki Goto is quoted as saying, “We could feel the seasons in our homes as if we were in forests.”

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year. Image: Bril/Dezeen

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year.
Image: Bril/Dezeen

For the moment, my neighbors and I continue to treat our homes and gardens as if the seasons still follow the regular course we’ve come to know. We are, after all, creatures of habit. It’s in our nature. Even if we don’t move from our old house here in France, if we are still around in 2050, we will live in an urban area.

Our habits have changed those of nature’s, and those changes are only news stories to many people living in cities, the resources all come from elsewhere.

How well and quickly will we be able to adapt our habits to the world that lives beyond city borders, but which affects everything that goes on within those borders?

Salt Road

Funny how natural resources rise and fall in our estimation.

There was a time when salt – plain old salt, the stuff we buy for pennies – was the cornerstone of empires, the arrow of conflict, the reason for Roman roads and the thorn that pricked societies to revolution.

Precious salt preserved food for long journeys, drew out illness, was strewn on farmlands to ruin economies, and only lastly lent spice to life.

Industrial progress changed all that, and now salt is so common and cheap that even the exotic varieties (black volcanic, spiced, Himalayan) are affordable.

Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

World’s largest salt flats at Salar de Uyuni, southwest Bolivia

The salt flats in southwest Bolivia are comprised of sodium chloride and traces of other elements. Notably, large amounts of lithium, which has recently become interesting as a key element for the batteries upon which modern life is built, i.e. those for consumer electronic devices.

Lithium makes up only 0.0007% of the earth’s crust, and is usually extracted through the electrolysis of lithium chloride (LiCl). Lithium is not found free in nature.

It’s the lightest metal element and can be alloyed with all manner of other metals and substances to make strong, light materials. Special light glass for telescope lenses, for example, or metal for aircraft.

According to TIME magazine, “For decades the salt flats have simply been a curiosity for adventure travelers (…), and a source of subsistence for impoverished salt gatherers who scrape mounds of salt and sell it as table salt. The production of lithum, which requires months of slow evaporation and weeks of refining in a lab, could transform the salt flats into the economic engine of Bolivia.”

I had started this post wanting to write about the decreasing value of salt as it became more common, and the possible increasing value of water as it becomes more scarce, but got completely sidetracked by this lithium story in Bolivia.
Sometimes curiosity takes us on the most unexpected side routes.
A good overview of salt history here.

Air Absurdum

I read today about an intriguing legal exercise in definitions.

Briefly, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) won a lawsuit that had been filed against it demanding that the commission take steps to reduce greenhouse gases. Travis County District Court decision essentially supported the commission’s view that it could use its own discretion in the implementation of greenhouse gas regulations.

But the commission was not satisfied with the language of the district court’s decision in its favor. Specifically, it claimed that the Judge Gisela Triana had made an “improper declaratory judgment” by including in her decision the comment that the state of Texas responsible for protecting “all natural resources of the state including the air and atmosphere.” qualite_air__093507200_1658_06072010

According to a Texas Tribune article, “Judge Triana agreed with the plaintiffs that a tenet of United States common law known as the public trust doctrine required the government to protect the atmosphere as a resource for public use.

“The commission had disagreed, saying Texas’ duty to protect resources under public trust were “limited to the waters of the state.””

The original lawsuit, the one that unsuccessfully demanded that the TCEQ take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, was one of many filed across the United States in an attempt to gain legal acknowledgement and rulings that the atmosphere and clean air are public trust assets that must be protected.

Travis County District Judge Gisela Triana was the first judge to do so, and in the hope of heading off a precedent, the TCEQ is seeking to have her ‘public trust’ comments vacated.clean-air

It’s an interesting argument on the part of the Commission, since the Mission Statement on the TCEQ site states:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.

Definitions have a curious way of becoming slippery when you try to catch them, to hold them up to the light and examine them from all sides.

“Natural resource” would seem an obvious enough term to define – a resource that occurs in nature, and one might add the notion that natural resources are shared by all, as no one ‘made’ them.

But this lumps the natural resources we all need to exist – breathable air, drinkable water – with the resources which are nice to have for a variety of reasons, many of them economic. Oil, timber, land, fish, wildlife, minerals.

So the apparent inextricability in the TCEQ’s mission statement of natural resource protection in one sentence and setting clean air as a goal in another might not be all that difficult to separate, after all – but only if the ‘natural resources’ under protection are of a different kind than the ‘natural resource’ of clean air.

I note in passing that, according to this The Daily Texan article, “If Texas was its own country, its emission levels would rank 21st in the world.”

Texas sky Photo: Mike Robinson

Texas textured sky
Photo: Mike Robinson

 

The Big House

I’ve written before about the housing boom in our region of France, with thousands of units going up every years, carpeting what were fields and forests when we moved here in the 1990s.

I’ve also noticed that many single-family houses of the suburban developments are much smaller than those in the United States.

Average floor space per capita. Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

Average floor space per capita.
Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

As it turns out, expectations are vastly different between countries when it comes to the amount of space required for a dwelling. Not surprisingly, the countries with more space and natural resources at their disposal tend to build bigger.

Not only do larger houses use more resources in the making, they require more in the maintaining – more heating and cooling, more furnishings, more products in long-term maintenence, more waste when they are removed.

Over on ShrinkThatFootprint, Lindsay Wilson put together some graphics that illustrate just how far apart our ideas of the right size house are across the globe. (Click through the graphic link for the graphics in sq. ft.)

Average floor space per capita Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

Average floor space per capita
Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

I’ve lived in countries where having enough space to actually go through a door in your own home that didn’t lead to the bathroom or outside was already considered a major achievement. I’m not sure our dreams are any smaller when the rooms aren’t as big as they can possibly be. In general, the trend seems to be towards increasing size, even as we struggle to figure out long-term solutions for providing power and water for what we already have.

But at what point does bigger stop being better? Is it the size of the home that is hemming our ability to grow, or our own desire for more?

Alice outgrows a house. Credit: Tenniel via Gutenberg.org