The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Real Time Bandits

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This is a re-post from the Original Climate Emergency Blog

Dr. Jane Goodall thinks you are a thief. Considering the physics of global warming, she may be right. And it turns out that standing accused of theft may be the least of our problems.

In 2009, during a lecture at Oxford, Dr. Goodall said that the popular quote about how “we borrow the world from our children” is a lie, since we have no real plan to pay our descendants back for the environmental destruction that we cause. Instead of borrowing the world from the future, she says we are stealing the world. These are powerful words, chosen to make the point that environmental destruction is a moral issue, a crime with victims, a fit subject of outrage. But is the crime in question literally theft? Or is this a metaphor meant only to indicate the moral stakes involved?

Theft means that the victim loses what the thief gains. If I run a red light, hit your car, and cause $2000 worth of damage, then I am at fault and you are my victim, but I’m not a thief because your loss is not my gain. It’s not like those two thousand dollars magically appear in my bank account. Air pollution itself is like a car crash, because while the perpetrators may be making money from their polluting activities, the loss of air quality itself is of no benefit to them. Yet there is one circumstance in which pollution is very much a theft.

Climate change means stealing real estate from the future.

Using resources means controlling land. The fact that all wealth is ultimately access to real estate is hidden by the complexity of our global economy, but if everyone had to live wholly within impenetrable biosphere bubbles, then rich people would have bigger bubbles. In reality, all the land that would be inside a person’s biosphere bubble is scattered all over the world, but interested consumers can at least get a rough idea of how much land they are using by calculating their ecological footprint. For example, if half a pound of carrots requires a square foot of land to grow, then a person who eats twenty pounds of carrots per year has forty square feet of carrot patch somewhere in the world. It isn’t necessary to know where that land is to know that a certain lifestyle requires a certain number of acres. For more on how ecological footprint estimates can be used for sustainability planning, check out Our Ecological Footprint, by Wackernagel and Rees. According to their calculation, oddly enough, the total ecological footprint of human activity is now bigger than the actual planet.

The extra acreage has to come from somewhere, and it comes from both the past and the future. The reason has to do with the physics of energy.

Almost all energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun, which means that the Earth has a maximum energy budget set by the amount of sunlight that falls on the planet’s surface over time. In practice, the Earth’s income is less than this maximum because not all the sun’s energy is absorbed. Using energy, whether by eating, burning fuel, or anything else, means taking advantage of acres of solar collection. Fossil fuel stores the solar energy that originally fell on swampland millions of years ago. Burning those fuels allows us to access acres of ancient sunlight. Burning fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide which will eventually have to be sequestered again. Carbon sequestration is another service provided by the land, and we have released so much that we do not have enough land to do the job. Sequestration is the same process as energy storage, and the process takes a long time. The extra carbon that our world cannot sequester will be passed on to the world of future generations. It is as though we have gone into debt by spending our energy faster than we can make it. The debt must be paid, if not by us than by our children and grandchildren—and their children and grandchildren, and so on into the future. It is possible to use land for more than one thing at the same time (the same forest can sequester carbon, provide habitat, and prevent flooding), but by committing future generations to manage their land primarily for carbon sequestration, we have definitely limited their options. The remaining acres missing from our ecological footprint belong to the future, and we did not ask their permission to use their land. This is, quite literally, theft. And it is ongoing, and we could stop it any time we like if we just decide to use less energy.

It is not only theft from the future. The fact that the total human ecological footprint is bigger than the planet means that there is no part of the planet that is not being used by somebody somewhere. Now, some countries have footprints bigger than their national territories, while others have footprints smaller than their land. Since there is no unused land, this is a zero-sum situation; the “extra” land in poor countries is being used by rich countries, even if only for carbon sequestration. Nor is this land paid for, because, since all wealth is ultimately land, a truly fair trade should not change either country’s footprint size. There are some complications here, obviously, but the overall picture is that many so-called “developing” countries are poor, not because they have not finished developing, but because the wealth of their land is being exported at steep disadvantage; in simple terms, wealthy countries have more resources because they have stolen them.

There is one more worrying permutation of the size of the human ecological footprint. Normally, communities of organisms that use up their resources suffer famine. A slight overdraft might only cause breeding failure for a few seasons in a small area. A major overdraft of ecological resources will cause a long and deep famine, possibly killing off the entire community. Animal and plant species have evolved different ways to deal with the limitations to their resources; basically, they can either respond to early signs of resource depletion by using less, or they can flee when the famine hits and start over somewhere new. But if the available space humans use is the entire planet, then there is obviously nowhere else to go. And with our resource base temporarily expanded beyond the size of our planet, through the use of resources taken from both the future and the past, we will continue to feel as though we have plenty until long after we have actually committed ourselves to famine. We cannot steal land from other time periods forever.

Our present and our future now depend on our collective ability to realize that we are hitting our limits even though it still feels as though we have plenty. Weather a critical mass of human beings are willing and able to choose thoughts over feelings remains to be seen.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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