There are three ways in which North Americans have managed to live at five-planets-worth-of-consumption. I am indebted to Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande for an explanation in the Transition Training here in Los Angeles in 2008, which really broadened my understanding.

“Ghost acres” – taking from others. We have raped and pillaged the raw materials of other continents (leaving the people who live on those continents with far less than their fair share). We’ve consumed those goods here and persuaded each other that they were rightfully ours.

“Draw down” — taking from the future. As we desecrate ancient forests and deplete fisheries, we are consuming today that which should be our children’s inheritance.

“Ancient sunlight” – taking from the past. Fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – are captured ancient sunlight. In the space of a mere 150 or so years out of the entire history of humanity, we are gobbling up the entire planetary supply.

We have an economic system that is entirely dependent upon taking from others, taking from the future, and taking from the ancient past. This economic system is built upon the presumption of everlasting growth. Thus in order to keep it going (keep it growing) we must take more from others, take more from the future, and take more from the ancient past.

Peak oil is the laws of physics telling us it is no longer possible to take more from the ancient past. Biocapacity is the laws of physics telling us it won’t be possible for much longer to take from the future. “War that will not end in our lifetimes” is a sign that taking from others has maxed out. No amount of “stimulus”, “green jobs” or changing political representatives is going to alter (or “fix”) this basic reality.

We are at the end of growth. We’re actually beyond the end of growth into the very beginning of economic contraction.

The task ahead is to manage that contraction so that it unfolds with as little Mad Max, civil unrest, and additional war as possible — as peacefully as possible.

A Basic Explanation: Economics

We have an economic system that is based entirely upon the presumption that growth will be ongoing, unceasing, and unlimited. This in turn requires ever more extraction from the earth. At this most basic level, our tour of economics must begin with biocapacity, a.k.a. global footprint.

Global footprint is how much raw materials we use and how much waste we generate, compared to how fast the planet can make more resources and clean up the mess in the same time period. Humanity as a whole has been using more resources and generating more waste than the planet can make and clean up. It is called ecological overshoot and we have been moving deeper into this state since the 1970s. Humanity is simultaneously experiencing peak oil, peak natural gas, peak coal, peak copper, peak uranium, peak phosphorus, peak fresh water, peak arable land, and more. Richard Heinberg calls it “peak everything.”

It gets even worse when we look at it by continent. Again, if we take all the “stuff” there is on the planet — all the fresh water, all the arable land, all the fisheries, all the forests, all the energy resources and more — and we divide it up by the number of people we have here today, we get a figure we can call our “fair share.”

Our fair share is 2.1 hecatres (they measure this stuff in an equivalency unit called “bioproductive acres”). Humanity as a whole uses on average 2.23 hecatres. 2.23 world average consumption is bigger than our 2.1 fair share. Right there you can see the ecological overshoot.

Here in North America, we consume at a rate of a whopping 9.4 hecatres. That is nearly five times our fair share. In other words, if everyone on the planet consumed the way we do — the way we tell each other is “normal” — it would take FIVE PLANETS to provide for it all.

This means that we would have to go to six, seven, eight planets-worth-of-consumption in order to “grow” this economy.

It’s quite clear we cannot do that.

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