Planetary debt bondage

Gully

It is illegal to place yourself, a relative or another individual into debt bondage – and thankfully it has been so for over 50 years. Morally, and ethically, this makes sense as not only were individuals selling off their own manpower to repay an obligation, but they were often committing future generations of their family to indentured labour. Imagine being born into a life where you owed 30 years of free, and often unregulated, labour to a powerful individual or interest. Undoubtedly a sad and unfulfilling existence.

Worryingly though, there is no corresponding law or UN Agency to prevent all of humanity placing our planet into debt bondage – but that is exactly what we are doing. This week we saw the latest annual declaration of Earth Overshoot Day on 13 August. This is the day in the year when we have blown our ecological budget. Or in other words, the day when we have exhausted the annual provisioning capacity of our planet, yet we still have 140 days remaining. If we go back to 1970 when provisioning last exceeded consumption then since that time we have accrued approximately 10 years of planetary ecological debt that somehow will have to be paid back in the future.

Tony blog graph

Give or take a few quiet weekends, life has been present on Earth for 3.5 billion years even if humans have only existed for 0.005% of that time. Since life first emerged in the oceans many paleontologists agree that there have been five previous mass extinctions. These are periods where the normal background rates of extinction are vastly exceeded. Marine vertebrate and invertebrate fossils indicate these peak extinctions occurred 66, 201, 252, 360 and 450 million years ago. Well we are now in a new epoch of the sixth extinction and this time around we caused it. For 150,000 years the Earth’s climate shaped human development, but now that has inverted and human development is shaping the Earth’s climate.

With a finite threshold for ecological provisioning, increasing per capita demands and an increasing human population we are in big trouble. The 10 years’ debt we have accumulated today at current trends will likely balloon into 30 years by 2050. So can we borrow from another planet? Can we triple provisioning capacity? Can we try and recalculate it with more favourable assumptions? Can we wish the problem away? Sadly, NO! Which raises the question what can we do to avoid greater debt and eventual disaster.

Obviously after August 13th humanity and the Earth’s ecosystems cannot hold their breath and wait until January 1st next year. So we are already borrowing on 2016 provisions placing our world and future generations into even more debt. But fortunately we can still take action to bring down that debt addition and move towards a path of eventually paying that debt back. By coincidence, 2015 is a once in a generational chance where we have an opportunity to stimulate a big FIX. At the global level we have the Third UN Financing for Development Conference, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP of Climate Convention. We all need to push the politicians not to let us or the planet down.

But taking action is not only a high level political responsibility but one for all 7.3 billion of us. Indeed the theme for Earth Overshoot Day in 2015 is Taking Action. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is proud to be one of the EOD partners and supports efforts globally, regionally, nationally and locally to bring down humanity’s collective ecological footprint.

Concretely, we are working with CGIAR and other partners to transform lives and landscapes with trees. When trees emerged 350 million years ago the world’s temperature was 10 degrees hotter and CO2 concentrations 10 times than today. Trees made the Earth habitable for mammals, including humans, and their destruction will make the world uninhabitable for humans. Nothing is better than a tree for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, for bringing up water from depth, for providing a framework for biodiversity to flourish, and providing resilience to inter-annual climate shocks.

Thanks to ourselves and others the science and practice of agroforestry, or cultivating trees for needed goods and services, is well resourced with actionable knowledge and sound evidence for enhanced policies and investments with trees in natural forests and agricultural landscapes. Tens of thousands of ideas, publications and datasets are available on our dynamic website (www.worldagroforestry.org). A truly universal treasure.

Our galaxy has 100 billion stars, and our universe has 100 billion galaxies. Whilst cosmically insignificant, our planet is still an amazing place. To keep it that way and avoid an accelerated post-human era we do though need to look after it better, and push back and eliminate Earth Overshoot Day. We need to turn Planetary Debt into an equitable Planetary Dividend. If we wait until the overshoot gets down to first of April we will all be fools, and probably doomed fools.

So please Save our Planet for Future Humanity – and also as it is the only one we know which has trees.

Further reading

See the complementary story  “Can a climate deal overcome ecological overshoot?” on the ICRAF website here

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Tony Simons

Tony Simons

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has worked 27 years on issues at the tropical agriculture/forestry interface, within the private sector (Shell Forestry); academia (University of Oxford); official development assistance (ODA/DFID); and research (CGIAR). He holds degrees from Massey University and Cambridge University, and an Honorary Professorship in Tropical Forestry at the University of Copenhagen, and has published over 100 research papers. Tony is passionate about the transformative change that the private sector can bring to development.

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