A devastating footprint

Mankind has long been demanding more from the earth than its ecosystems can cope with

 (Published in GralsWelt 44/2007)

With the GralsWelt issue 43 we have under the heading "How many people can the earth take?" (here under “Ecology”) a problem that is still often suppressed is addressed: the earth's carrying capacity. In view of the dramatic climate change, this topic remains highly topical. But how do scientists come to their assessments of the environmental pollution caused by us humans would be sustainable in the long term?

We summarize here the approaches and results of considerations that are of utmost importance for economic and political planning. For how we act today will determine the future of our children and grandchildren, and in extreme cases even the permanent habitability of our home planet.

"God forbid that India should ever proceed to industrialization on the pattern of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) today holds the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million people were to embark on similar economic exploitation, the world would be eaten bare as by a plague of locusts."
Mahatma Ghandi in 1928 (2, p. 37).

After the publication of the book "The Limits to Growth" (3) in 1972, many of the analysts focused on the finiteness of the earth's resources, which is evident today, for example, in rising prices for oil and other raw materials. But the observation, also already published in "The Limits to Growth", that progressive environmental pollution could slow down economic growth even before the shortage of raw materials becomes very noticeable, has been suppressed for a long time since then.

What stresses can ecosystems withstand in the long term?

For decades, attempts have been made to express the earth's load-bearing capacity in figures. Different assumptions can be made and different results can be obtained accordingly.

But these approaches are similar in one aspect: They come to the conclusion that the product of population size and resource consumption per capita (often propagated as “quality of life”) is limited by the earth's carrying capacity.

In other words: When the limit of an ecosystem's carrying capacity is reached, consumption per capita may only continue to increase if the population decreases. Or vice versa: if the population increases, consumption per person must decrease. Thus, there must be a balance between population size, consumption per capita and biocapacity.

The continuous growth of the economy preached by politicians of all parties is therefore just as irresponsible and impossible as a continuous growth of the population.

For the resources and the self-cleaning systems of planet Earth are, according to the consensus of ecologists, limited and cannot be continuously increased by any trick.

Is Germany's environmental performance overstretched?

One of the first approaches to quantify environmental impact, i.e. to express it by means of numbers, dates back to 1984.

Wolfram Ziegler (4) attempted to convert the sum of environmental impacts into energy as part of a dissertation. This gave him an easy-to-use comparative figure. On the basis of historical data, he was then able to estimate the loads that still seemed tolerable for the ecosystems in Germany. From this, it was finally possible to determine the population density that was still compatible with the environment at the level of prosperity at the time. He came to the conclusion that even at that time the capacity of the environment in Germany was overtaxed. It seemed advisable either to reduce consumption or to reduce population density.

Some people interested in ecology (I myself gave ecology lectures at a technical college at that time and regularly studied the relevant literature) found this work trend-setting.

But from decision-makers of all stripes came only rejection. Also Ziegler's Involvement in a political party and in nature conservation failed. His at least scientifically founded warnings brought him rejection, suspicion of racism and other discriminations. Nobody wanted to accept the fact that the necessary ecological stability sets limits to environmental pollution!

The size of our planet (Billion hectares[1])
Surface of the earth 51
of which land 15
Ice-free land area 13.4
Area available globally
for biocapacity 11.4
Potentially arable land 3.2
Currently used potential
arable land 3.2
thereof for agricultural
Cultures 1.5
of which for pasture,
Forests, shrubs 1.7
It will hardly be possible to increase the cultivable land significantly. There is even a risk that arable land will be damaged or destroyed by overuse.

A frequently used comparative parameter for environmental impact today is the ecological footprint called. Each country has its own specific ecological footprint:

"It describes the total area it takes to build its infrastructure, produce food and goods such as services, and absorb emissions from fossil energy use. If all pressures on the biosphere - other than pollution - are thus converted into an area figure and summed up, the global ecological footprint left by humans on the planet can be quantified. Viewed over the last forty years, this indicator reveals a dramatic development: between 1960 and 2000, the global ecological footprint increased by 80 percent. Relating it to the biologically productive area of the world-excluding deserts, ice sheets, and deep oceans-shows that it has exceeded the biologically productive area in size since the mid-1970s." (2, S. 36)

The size of the ecological footprint (hectares/capita)
Industrialized countries: approx. 6.54
Upper-middle-income developing countries: approx. 2.66
Developing countries with lower middle income: approx. 1.73
Low Income Developing Countries:
approx. 0.91
World: approx. 2.2
2, p. 62)
Developing countries aim for an income comparable to that of industrialized countries, which then leads to a similarly large ecological footprint. In the industrialized countries, there is a lack of willingness to cut back and thereby reduce their ecological footprint.

The ecological footprint of humankind in 1999 was about 13.5 billion hectares. Of this, 42 percent is accounted for by industrialized countries and 58 percent by developing countries. In terms of population size, the industrialized countries are likely to take up only 30 percent. The globally available biocapacity in the best case is given as 11.4 billion hectares, so that at present the earth is already 20 percent overused. (2, S. 62)

This unequal distribution of the ecological burden between industrialized and developing countries is currently blocking climate protection measures. Thus, the developing countries urgently demand further growth and blame the industrialized countries for the environmental problems.

Emerging country China, as an example, refuses to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, even though it is expected to emit more carbon dioxide than the U.S. in a few years. Currently, the U.S. is the largest producer of climate-damaging gases.

China and India report unprecedented growth rates

The global economy continues to grow. Parallel to economic growth, environmental pollution and resource consumption are increasing. The two largest nations - China and India - are reporting growth rates unprecedented in history. In the industrialized countries, governments are clamoring for economic growth to reduce unemployment and save social systems.

Nobody is talking about moderation. In political jargon, people reject "ideologies of renunciation" and rely on the miracle weapon of technology, which is supposed to fix everything!

"Superlative" Dubai: Far from nature and far from any economic sense
The peak of insanity from an ecological point of view can be found in Dubai, the most famous city in the United Arab Emirates. There, skyscrapers with luxury hotels shoot up out of the desert. Glamorous shopping malls tempt shoppers. An airport is being built, with a capacity like London and Frankfurt combined.

The largest ski hall in the world beckons (with an outside temperature of 40 degrees!). Huge hotel complexes, bungalows and marinas are being built on artificial islands in the Persian Gulf. This epitome of waste undoubtedly holds the world record for the ecological footprint of around 12 hectares per capita, while a European needs 4.8 hectares per capita, which is far too much (1, p. 28).

If we all wanted to live as luxuriously as in Dubai, then the earth would be enough for less than 1 billion people. Or, the other way around: For such prosperity, almost seven earths would be needed for the current population!

Dubai, the utopian mega-city, will probably puzzle archaeologists in a few millennia - by then long since swallowed up by the desert sands. Who put such gigantic buildings in the desert, when, why, and for what purpose?

Such superlatives for self-promotion, far removed from nature and far beyond any economic reason, were often the portent of a nation's decline.

This time, however, not only a Rich or a city collapse - like the biblical Babel with its proverbial tower - but the wholeThe world civilization, which has been lured onto an ecological path by the representatives of an economy that is hostile to nature, is in danger.

The population of our planet

World population approx .: arable land per capita
1950: 2.5 billion 0.59 hectares
1960:       3                             0,50
1974:       4                              0,35
1994:       5,6                           0,27
2000:      6,3                            0,23
(2050:    10,3                           0,15)


(1) Geo 1, 2007 dated 1. 1. 2007.

(2) Sachs Wolfgang/Santarius Tilman, Fair Future, Report of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, C. H. Beck, Munich 2005.

(3) Meadows Denis, The Limits to Growth, dva, Stuttgart 1972.

(4) Ziegler Wolfram, Umweltschutz - Versuch einer Analyse. Yearbook 1984 of the Technical University of Munich, p. 305 f.

1 1 hectare = 100 ar = 10,000 m² = 1/100 km²