Is human consumption one of the biggest pressures on the natural world?
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “mother” of all economic problems but scarcity is a pretty central notion to all of economics. In that sense, you could say it is the mother of all economic problems. But human beings are also central to all of economics. Without human beings, there is no economic activity.
That said, most of economics is based on theories of how to “best” allocate scarce resources to actors in an economy who achieve this end at the highest level. That could mean the most output for the least cost etc.
How do we account for environmental costs?
The problem is that many costs associated with natural resource depletion and environmental degradation are not being accounted for with the level of efficacy that is necessary to ensure we don’t exploit the natural resources on the planet until it cannot sustain human civilisation. That’s if the ecology of the planet were to collapse. But it could happen gradually, some argue it’s happening now (the breakdown of coral reefs is an example).
A really interesting and recent study published by the journal Nature painstakingly examined the impact of the global supply chain on biodiversity. Biodiversity is a key natural resource. We derive many benefits from different species of life on earth, whether it’s for food, medication or other types of consumption. The study found that:
at least one-third of biodiversity threats worldwide are linked to production for international trade. Understanding market forces and using effective spatial targeting are key to efficient protection.
The alternative path to what we have been traveling is that environmental costs and impacts are accounted for by firms and economic agents who reap the benefits from natural resources but do not pay the full cost this has on society (pollution, ecological degradation, fossil fuel emissions, etc.).
One example of a solution to this problem is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative:
[A] global initiative focused on “making nature’s values visible”. Its principal objective is to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels. It aims to achieve this goal by following a structured approach to valuation that helps decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity, demonstrate their values in economic terms and, where appropriate, capture those values in decision-making.
TEEB forms a partnership with many leading environmental organisations such as the UN environmental programme, the ICUN, etc.
We cannot continue exploiting the natural resources of the planet, continue consuming, polluting, and destroying the biosphere indefinitely. Failure to stop unsustainable human activities will put civilisation at risk.
The biology of earth and earth’s systems (the climate, weather, oceans, etc.) will recover irrespective of what we humans do to it in the very long-term — even if this is millions of years, it will recover and there would be little trace that human civilisations ever existed. Maybe there’d be a lot of plastic left behind, however …
How serious are the impacts of humans on the ecology of the planet?
The most important consideration to consider is: what will the impacts be on earth caused by humans? Will we wipe out many other species before we find ways to live more sustainably, or will we pollute the planet and change the climate and its associated processes to the point where we cannot change it back without massive risks?
An earth devoid of most of its biodiversity and polluted and exploited beyond recognition is probably a far-cry from where we are now but it’s not unimaginable.
Recent research from leading conservation biologists:
Dwindling population sizes and range shrinkages amount to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization. This “biological annihilation” underlines the seriousness for humanity of Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event.
Many of the problems associated with biodiversity declines are directly attributable to human activity and resource consumption (mining, deforestation, overfishing, etc.); the ecological footprint humans have is mostly from the economically developed world.
The whole world cannot consume at the same rate that developed nations do.
Economically developed nations have, by far, the highest ecological footprints per capita.
With respect to natural resource consumption, according to the Sustainable Europe Research Institute:
Humans today extract and use around 50% more natural resources than only 30 years ago, at about 60 billion tonnes of raw materials a year … [T]he limited capacity of the global ecosystems to provide us with biotic resources, such as cereals, sh and timber, and to absorb the waste and emissions we generate through our resource use. This capacity is called “biocapacity”. Calculations using “Ecological Footprint” illustrate that the world is already using around 30% more biocapacity than the global ecosystems can provide in a sustainable manner.
In order to achieve such a substantial reduction of our resource use, we need a fundamental change in how our economies deal with natural resources and the services they provide. We need to profoundly transform the way we produce and consume products and services.
If you are hopeful, we will achieve these aims, and it is warranted that a pessimist would think that we can’t.