Humanity could be heading for collapse if there is no "radical rethinking of our cities, consumption patterns, food production and our energy economy". This was the bleak message of the Green Week session on the EU's 'ecological footprint'.
In the context of the EU's Green Week on Biodiversity, four high-level panelists looked in a session on 30 May at Europe's ecological impact using the "ecological footprint accounting" and the findings of the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Georgina Mace, science director at the London Institute of Zoology, presented the main results of the 2005 Millennium Assessment. "We are squandering our natural capital, selling off our family silver", Mrs Mace said. She also expressed serious doubts on the EU's ambitions to halt further biodiversity loss by 2010. "Natural systems require decades to recover", Mrs Mace stated, "let's hope we can put our policies in place by 2010". Her pessimism on the 2010 target had been contradicted in an earlier press conference by Environment Commissioner Dimas, who had expressed his firm belief that Europe would be able to deliver on its goals for biodiversity.
Mathis Wackernagel, one of the founders of Ecological Footprint Accounting, presented an overview of the research done by the Global Footprint Network. "We are in ecological overshoot", Wackernagel said. On average each person on earth today has an average footprint of 2.2 global hectares compared to the 1.8 hectares per person available. "Europe needs 2.5 Europe's to support itself", he continued, "if we continue like this the world will need two planets in 2050 to survive". What is needed, according to Wackernagel, are accurate accounts of the ecological assets available and usable, and starting with adapting our megacities to ecological sustainability.
Fred Langeweg of the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency painted a similar pessimistic picture. "It is unlikely that the EU's 2010 target will be met", he claimed. For him the solution lies in decoupling economic development and biodiversity loss.
Christopher Flavin, President of Worldwatch, spoke about a possible "horror movie scenario". He drew the attention to the economic growth of China and India. With a total population of 2.5 billion compared to the 700 million for EU-25 and the US together, it is unrealistic to think that China and India can adapt their industrial practices and lifestyle to Western standards. "The numbers just do not add up", Flavin said. He recommended a radical rethinking of our cities and our Western consumption patterns, of our food economy, and of our energy economy. "We need decentralised, renewables-based and optimal energy efficient systems", Flavin said, dismissing a possible revival of nuclear as a bad solution.
In the debate with the audience, questions were raised about the capability of world political systems to solve this kind of crisis. Georgina Mace feared that national governments would indeed not be able to deal with problems of this magnitude. Flavin said that he was more optimistic. "We have to show an alternative, a system of a better world", he said, dismissing scare scenarios. He pointed to new initiatives of venture capitalists in the United States, who are recognising the business opportunities of "disruptive change".
All panelists agreed that "we need a different kind of growth". This final message of the session seemed very much in line with the humanist message of Vaclav Havel in the opening session of Green Week. Havel pleaded for more humility of mankind with regard to nature and the need to question the current economic growth obsession (see EurActiv 31 May 2006).