How Much Nature Do We Have? How Much Do We Use? Mathis Wackernagel | TEDxSanFrancisco

Mathis Wackernagel

Mathis Wackernagel is a Swiss-born sustainability advocate. He is President of Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think tank with offices in Oakland, California; Brussels, Belgium, and Geneva, Switzerland.

Following is the full text of his TEDx Talk titled “How Much Nature Do We Have? How Much Do We Use?” at TEDxSanFrancisco conference.

Listen to the MP3 audio of this TEDx Talk:



Hello San Francisco.

This awesome planet is full with life and covered with diverse ecosystems. And the people living on this planet are technological wizards.

They have built spacecrafts to take the largest selfies ever of themselves. And if the resolution was a bit higher you would see them wave. And these people very much like you and me are incredibly voracious. To the extent that now it takes 1.6 planets to meet the demand that they put on nature.

In other words, their demand on nature is 60% more than what Earth can renew.

Or it takes 19 months to regenerate what they take in one year. How’s that possible?

Now, I’ve heard of some people who can spend more than what they earn. Or we can cut trees more quickly than they regrow, or we can fish more quickly than fish repopulate, or we can emit CO2 more quickly than the Earth can absorb that excess.

And like with money, if we continue to spend more than what we earn, the likelihood of financial bankruptcy is high, and the same thing is true with resources.

If we use more than what Earth can regenerate, over the long term, that means ecological bankruptcy, which means a very depleted planet with harsh life conditions.

My obsession is to avoid ecological bankruptcy through metric. Because how can we measure, how can we know, how much we use compared to how much we have available? And for that we developed an ecological accounting system, to tell us how big of a planet we have compared to how much we use. It’s called the Ecological Footprint.

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We borrow the thinking from farmers because they look at how much area is there that is productive, for grazing land, cropland, forestry, marine areas, that’s what we have, we call that biocapacity.

And then we compare that with how much we use, the Ecological Footprint for food, for fiber, for absorbing CO2 waste, for our urban areas, all areas that compete for space, and so we can add it up and know how much we use.

Then we can compare the two: how much do we use, how much footprint do we use compared to how much we have?

And when we do that, and we look at nations as if they were farms, this is how the world looked like when I was born.

Most countries here in green had far more biocapacity than what it took to support their population. And you could see some countries are already red: Europe, with the colonial heritage, they used more resources; Japan; United States is turning pinkish.

And in my lifetime it has changed to a world where now 85% of the world population live in countries that use more than what their own ecosystems can renew. And it’s different for every country.

But there’s an overarching trend, the global trend, and it looks like this: That the biocapacity, the amount available to regenerate, has actually increased over the last 50 years about 20%. How so? Because through more intensive agriculture we can now generate more stuff per acre.

Can we maintain that trend? We don’t know. Maybe we can a little bit. Maybe if there will be a lot of climate change, that will reduce biocapacity. But we have increased it 20%.

But perhaps more importantly, our demand on nature, our ecological footprint has grown 2.5 fold, even more rapidly. So we moved from a world where we used less than what Earth could regenerate to one where we now use 60% more.

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And every country is different. Let me just show you one. Spain: very rapid increase, particularly as they entered the European Union, they got money more cheaply, that they can build out the country, and the footprint grew, and then there was a financial crisis, and – boop – the footprint declined.

So how is it possible that a country can run an ecological deficit?

There are three mechanisms really. One is they can use their own ecosystems more than what they regenerate; they can net import – that means the import of resources exceeds the export of resources; and they can also use the global commons, mainly through emitting CO2 more than what their ecosystems absorb, so they send this beautiful gift of CO2 to the world.

Now this contradiction between planetary boundaries and our growing appetite has been recognized for quite some time, particularly in the 70s, lots of books were published, etc, and my first experience with that contradiction was utterly pleasant.

I was 11 years old when the first oil crisis hit. And the world economy nearly came to a standstill. And Switzerland, where I lived, had this great idea to counteract that with car-free Sundays. And for us children it was just fantastic.

We could bicycle and roller skate on the highways, we could roam through the city freely and safely, we had a great time.

And it took another 20 years until heads of state got together in Rio in 1992 to say maybe we should do something about that. And they came up with this idea of sustainable development. They weren’t yet too sure what it meant.

And it took another 20 years – a day to remember: 25th of September 2015 – where 193 heads of state with the Pope got together and said, “Here, let’s launch the largest plan ever for sustainable development,” the Sustainable Development Goals. They span over 17 domains and have about 169 targets.

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And so really, for the first time in history, actually, we have moved beyond just human rights. Now the new dream is human rights, but the bigger one, called sustainable development, that’s the official dream of humanity.

Now what exactly do they mean with sustainable development?

If you cruise the web you will find hundreds of definitions, some of them deliberately vague because people don’t want to be [hangible]. But the essence is very simple, these two words: sustainable development.

Development is the short hand of policy geeks to say, “We all want to have great lives.” “We all want to have great lives.” But if all want to have great lives, why do we say sustainable? Because we recognize the budget constraint that there’s only one planet.

So that’s really the essence, how can we all live well within the means of one planet? And really if I had a big wish, I wish all universities, all research institutions, all parliaments, all White Houses around the world, on their doorway they would say, “How can we all live well within the means of one planet?”

That’s the most profound, overarching, mother-of-all-research questions that we still don’t know about, and we need talent to find out.

But once we define it, we can start to measure it, and that’s going to be the core of my gift to you, I hope.

When we say how can we measure sustainable development, let’s start with development. How do we measure that? It’s not that easy, but the United Nations came up with a very simple index, recognizing that people, yes, they do like income. So they say, yes, income’s one piece, but not only.

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