Last week’s “Biodiversity Sunday” delved into the topic of overconsumption—exploring how our planetary footprint is causing debt on our ecological bank account, bringing us closer to the global destruction line and the limit of consumption growth.

Overexploitation of biological resources in the Asean

THIS debate is also of particular importance for the Asean region, first, since it is mega-biodiverse, harboring more than 20 percent of the global biodiversity and, for instance, 30 percent of the coral reefs.

At the same time, the 10 Asean member-states are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, while an intact biodiversity poses immense opportunities for climate protection and adaptation to climate change. These natural resources are, second, put at peril by the already mentioned region’s economic growth, which is increasingly based on domestic and foreign consumption.

Let us look at two notorious examples for overexploitation, beginning with illegal wildlife trade.

The Asean region has long been targeted by illegal wildlife traders as a hot spot in the lucrative, multibillion-dollar global trade of wildlife, in which both live and processed goods of most species are traded, ranging from tigers and elephants to rare orchids and indigenous medicinal herbs, from rare marine species to endemic reptiles and songbirds.

The scale of illegal wildlife trade is alarming: Experts estimate the value of illegal wildlife trade at $10 billion to $20 billion annually. Data from the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network show the rich biodiversity of Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar as being particularly targeted.

A significant proportion of wildlife trafficked through the Asean region is purchased by wealthy consumers from outside the region, i.e., China, Europe and the United States, with unsettling 13,000 metric tons of turtles shipped to China every year from Asean, as one example.

Moreover, illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing adds to threats brought about by known and quantifiable stresses, like official (over) fishing.

The growing demand for fish drives the collection of these resources way beyond their capacity to recover, leaving 90 percent of fish stocks fully or overexploited. A recent report estimated the value of IUU at the global scale to be between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually, with P26.5 billion worth of losses in the Philippines in 2008 alone.

This makes evident that current human lifestyle and consumption patterns are now, more than ever, critically incompatible with sustaining the region’s and the world’s remaining natural flora and fauna, and a stable climate.

Peak stuff?

HAVING explored that the very foundation of our consumption- and growth-based economic system is intrinsically linked with today’s suicidal devastation of our very ecological basis, the outlook is certainly not the brightest.

Nevertheless, there are numerous road maps, and already proven ideas, how to get to the bottom of this conundrum. There should be no illusions, however, that this can be accomplished at the drop of a hat and without substantial efforts.

For instance, the often-quoted concept of “peak stuff” that beyond a certain level of economic development, people simply stop consuming so much, will fail the reality check. This hope, also known as economic “dematerialization,” states that technology and the course of economic evolution will allow prosperity to keep rising without a linked increase in our use of energy and materials.

Even though some developed countries, like the UK, in fact, display certain symptoms of decreasing “total material requirement” with slightly falling water use, car ownership or calorie consumption, this will only apply to the billion or so people living in rich countries out of the global population of 7 billion. At the global level, a peak stuff it is non-existent.

Leapfrogging inefficient technology

CAN the third factor of the planetary-footprint equation, technology, perform as our ace up the sleeve then? It has always had a hand in determining how many of us can survive on the planet.

For instance, the industrial society raised the carrying capacity of our planet substantially by exploiting fossil fuels, not least to produce artificial fertilizer for global food security. But do not the problems of overconsumption and resource depletion we face today stem from such very innovations?

Notwithstanding, a further technological revolution might still help us use resources more efficiently, without trashing vital ecosystems. And again China leads by example, leapfrogging inefficient processes used in developed nations. According to the World Bank, the Chinese economy’s carbon intensity has dropped by almost 70 percent over 30 years.

Nevertheless, that still won’t be enough on its own. “Even with the strongest possible assumptions, we cannot hit carbon-emission targets by energy and process efficiency within the existing system,” says Julian Allwood, a resource specialist at the University of Cambridge.

A transparent consumer market

A MARKED-BASED approach, within a strong governance framework, might be more promising, as put out in the idea of giving cash value to finite “natural capital,” just as we do to finite material resources. Doing so we would put a price on forests, soils, water supplies and other essential ecological services—an approach the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), a regional intergovernmental organization based in the Philippines, coordinating national and regional efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management in Southeast Asia is promoting within the region.

Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project, supports ACB in this endeavor. Its focus on biodiversity and economy supports policies and actions for valuing biodiversity in the context of ecosystem services, raising awareness and integrating ecosystem services into sustainable development planning within a “Green Economy,” also the buzzword of the recent Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Likewise, rethinking our tax system would also help. An environmental tax reform, shifting taxes from labor and income to resource consumption, could be a big incentive to change our habits faster and more profoundly.

Even easier than complex incentive structures would be the introduction of more consumer transparency. It is hard to imagine that the regular shopper in the supermarket has the attention to knowingly and purposely wreck the planet.

More likely, the consumption choices are a product of unawareness of the environmental impact of the selected product, the deliberate deception of the shopper by advertisement and the retention of information on the resource demand of the product by the respective company.

Two solutions are at hand: Certification, such as the one applied by the Forest Stewardship Council for timber, or the Marine Stewardship Council for fish, warrants transparently the sustainable production of these products.

In addition, a “traffic-light labeling” would show in a clear manner the environmental impact, for example, of a package of cheese, with a green, yellow or red light for parameters, such as carbon-dioxide emissions or water consumption.

That certification and labeling can successfully influence consumer behavior for the better as proven by Germany’s organic food sector with a yearly revenue of €6 billion already in 2008—a trend that is increasing.

Sufficiency for a happy planet

FINALLY, much discussion revolves around GDP, even though this plainly is a poor measure of sustainable development, as it fails to reflect the state of natural resources or ecological conditions, and focuses exclusively on the short term, without indicating whether national policies are sustainable.

Rather, pick a metric that emphasizes citizen well-being in combination with the environment, such as the Happy Planet Index, and you will be surprised to find the usual pecking order turned on its head, with countries such as Costa Rica topping the league, and the US on the sick list.

Similar approaches embrace the Inclusive Wealth Index and the Millennium Consumption Goals, both helping to ensure that the basic needs of the poor are met, preserve and strengthen Earth’s natural resource base on which human society depends, and enhance global prosperity.

A more quirky indicator for global overconsumption could be the total mass of humans living on Earth, which biologists of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine say is a better way of measuring our impact on the planet than simply counting our numbers.

According to the latest estimate, humanity weighs in at 287 million tons, or more than 5,400 Titanics.

As we have seen, a comprehensive strategy for biodiversity and climate protection, and sustainable development must essentially take into account sufficiency, that is, approaches to self-limitation, modesty in consumption, and deceleration—even if this requires a longer-term societal shift in awareness.

A first step to cut our total human mass could be to put one steak less on the next BBQ, thus, also slowly reducing the headcount of our “modern-day sauropod flock,” and all the problems involved.

At stake is nothing less than the sixth global mass extinction, similar to the last one the very same sauropods experienced 65 million years ago, with the only difference that this time it might include another species—Homo sapiens. –PHILIPP GASSNER / SPECIAL TO THE BUSINESSMIRROR