The WWF has just released its 2010 Living Planet Report (download a copy here).  The big headline, being run by all the news organizations, is that we “need to find another Earth”.  The headline is attention-grabbing, but misses the real issue here.  In several posts on this blog I’ve referenced the fact that we need about three Earths worth of resources to allow everyone to live at the standard of consumption of the average person in the US.  Implicit in this measurement has been the fact that we here in the US (and in Europe, Australia, Japan, parts of China, parts of India, etc.) can go on consuming as we do just so long as the other 4-odd billion people don’t consume much at all.  This is the part of sustainable development nobody likes to talk about – there are two ways to achieve it: either cutbacks on the consumption of those who consume the most until consumption at a fairly high level is available for all (how most people tend to think of it) or just keep a hell of a lot of people really, really poor so that a small minority can just go on consuming (de facto, this is the choice that we’ve made up to this point – that’s right, if you are reading this blog, you live the way you do because 4 billion people cannot).

Well, this report now throws a bit of a wrench into the ugly, unacknowledged path we have chosen – turns out that our current levels of consumption will not be sustainable past the next 20 years no matter how many people we impoverish.  Our global population and consumption figures are simply too high.  That’s right, by 2020 we’d better have figured out how to get twice as much resource out of this planet as we do now.  I don’t see that happening.

I don’t think this means the revolution is coming anytime soon – I think the steadily rising inequality we see here in the US will eventually be mirrored by similar patterns across the advanced economies, as a smaller and smaller group of people cling to their privileges.  Further, the whole two Earths in 20 years argument is a bit overstated, as they work in carbon sinks and other regulating services from ecosystems that are not completely understood and therefore sometimes more resilient than expected, and are often fungible with other resources and biophysical processes.  But if the WWF is right (it is too early to say for sure), we are shifting into an era where our choices for how to achieve sustainable development narrow to one: reducing consumption.  Then we will have new choices – who reduces, and how?