Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once said: “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?” Translated to the world order of today, his question would be: “What if China would aspire to the standards of living of the United States?” Our planet is certainly flexible. A quarter of its surface has been plowed up, and its atmosphere, soil, and water have been fundamentally altered in many places. Humanity now extracts more nitrogen from the air than nature does, and we use more water than all the rivers put together. It’s a miracle that Earth’s systems have been able to withstand these interventions as effectively as they have. Many parts of the world are cleaner than they were a century ago. Pollutants like sulphur, nitrogen, and small particles are now routinely filtered from exhaust pipes and chimneys. We’ve mastered the problems of acidification and smog. But those were the easy tasks. The fact that we dealt with bad things in the past is no guarantee of a rosy future. Interference in our environment is too great for that. Humanity continues its assault on the planet. The toughest problems remain unsolved. The truth is that we are already consuming more than one Earth can support. Just as a company can spend more than it earns by selling its assets, we are eating into Earth’s capital, which was accumulated during thousands of years. In a report published by a group of leading scientists, it was concluded that we already have transgressed safe planetary boundaries in many respects. We already have surpassed the carrying capacity of Earth’s climate with a factor of 1.5, we are at a tenfold rate of bearable biodiversity loss, we extract four times more nitrogen from natural cycles than can be considered sustainable, and we are at the tolerable thresholds of the phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, and stratospheric ozone depletion. Human civilization is out of kilter with the natural environment. We are using considerably more than one Earth. Many subsystems of Earth react in a nonlinear, often abrupt, way.
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