Editor’s note: Peterson started this year-long series of commentaries in January to encourage readers to cut carbon emissions each year for the next decade, in line with achieving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations of a 50-percent emissions cut by 2030.
Writing this series, I’ve benefited from various feedback, some of which has changed my thinking.
I now see greenhouse gas emissions as a symptom, not the problem. The root problem is a lifestyle that is exceeding Earth’s capacity.
The Earth Overshoot Network estimated that on July 29, 2019, humanity used nature’s renewable resource budget for the entire year.
Why is that important?
Broadly speaking, we can think about two things: ecological footprint (the impact we have on Earth); and ecosystem services (the stuff Earth can renewably supply). More specifically, our carbon dioxide emissions are exceeding the Earth’s ability to supply carbon sequestration.
We have several choices about how to proceed, and a local analogy may clarify them.
Earlier this fall, I spent a long weekend at my in-laws’ cabin. The cabin doesn’t have a water supply. We bring it. Consequently, we have a good measure of our consumption.
Alone for a four-day weekend, I averaged 4 gallons a day.
I was reflecting on that while doing the dishes at home. At the cabin we use two washtubs, one for rinsing the other for washing. Small amounts of rinse water are poured on each dish, and when it accumulates in the tub, that is transferred to the wash tub to freshen it.
At home, I decided to capture my dishwater. I’m using 2-3 gallons cleaning up after dinner. The lifestyle of running water from the tap is my nemesis.
The cabin has an outhouse. At home we have low-flow toilets. Even using the “yellow mellow/brown down” strategy I go through several gallons a day. Again, a lifestyle with flush toilets leads to the symptom of higher water use.
Moscow gets its water from two sources, the upper aquifer (Wanapum) which has been shown to recharge and the lower (Grande Ronde) which continues to decline.
There are several paths forward for the planet and locally. The first path knows no limits and attempts to increase Earth’s ecosystem services to meet our demand. Fertilizers from fossil fuels are an example of increasing Earth’s productivity. Locally we are discussing getting more water from another source.
Alternatively, some imagine we can stabilize our energy and resource consumption on a green plateau and maintain current standards of living by decoupling the economy from its ecologic impacts. On a planetary scale, there is no evidence that decoupling economy from ecology can be achieved.
Locally our water pumping has leveled to a rough plateau. For the last 15 years we’ve been growing our communities without growing our water use – decoupling water from economic growth.
But, locally, our water footprint is still exceeding the aquifer recharge; we leveled off on a high water-lifestyle plateau.
The problem with planetary overshoot is not only are we living beyond our renewable “income,” but the ecosystem services are also being degraded, so future supply is lowered.
I see that in California’s fires. Global greenhouse gas emissions are in overshoot. That is changing the climate, making fire seasons worse. The ensuing bigger fires are removing the plant material that stabilizes the soil.
The result is loss of ecosystem services, including flood control, and carbon capture.
Burned areas may regenerate, but in the meanwhile, they play a smaller role in supplying services, making our overshoot bigger.
A third option is to reduce demand below Earth’s renewable capacity. In local terms, Moscow’s water pumping would be set by the proven renewable rate of the Wanapum aquifer.
Therein lies the lifestyle challenge. High water use is a symptom of a lifestyle with flush toilets and running water at the kitchen sink.
The fourth option is to crash. Locally, crashing would be that sucking sound when our wells stop finding water in the Grande Ronde. Globally, it may be worse, as in the sixth great extinction.
I’m hoping to find a way to the lower demand, third solution.
Nils Peterson is executive director of the Moscow Affordable Housing Trust and former chair of the city Planning and Zoning Commission.