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(This is from Giorgios Kallis's new book "Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care". Kallis is a leading exponent of "degrowth" but his problems with statements like "Humanity uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths" or "On August humanity will have used nature's resource budget for the entire year" are unmistakably a dig at fellow degrowth advocate Jason Hickel, whose articles are filled with such references. I will be reviewing Kallis's book for CounterPunch and will certainly try to weigh the differences. Frankly, I find it difficult to think of making the case for degrowth without such references.)


The "ecological footprint" is a calculation of how much land it would take to produce the goods and services we consume and to absorb the waste and pollution we create. The indicator is useful because it reminds us that what we do "here" has impacts "there": the environmental costs of our actions are shifted in space and time, and the foot print is a measure of this shift. But the indicator, and especially the way it is communicated, has many problems. Forget for the moment the scientific acrobatics necessary for turning everything into its land-use equivalent My concern here is with statements such as, "Humanity uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths," or, "On August humanity will have used nature's resource budget for the entire year." No matter how good the intentions, this framing reproduces a Malthusian vision of a limited earth.46 We are too numerous, and we consume too much. But who is this "we"? And why do "we" consume too much? The footprint message makes for headlines but it is apolitical, as it puts us all in the same boat. It is also disempowering, as our supposed overshooting comes and goes every year, but the world continues to turn.

The "planetary boundaries" framework is scientifically more sophisticated, but it too can reproduce the myth of a limited world. There are nine boundaries of the earth system, planetary scientists tell us, and if we transgress them we risk abrupt, catastrophic, nonlinear change" (climate change is one result; there's also the extinction of species and the loss of biodiversity, which could collapse food chains; pollution from phosphorous and nitrogen; the ozone hole; and acidification of the oceans, which could lead to drastic reduction in fish stocks). Supposedly, there is nothing political about these boundaries, which are descriptions of the way the world is. We can release so much phosphorous before polluting ecosystems and so much carbon before bringing on a certain rise in global temperature. But as I have argued, there is nothing natural in framing such facts as limits or "boundaries." They are boundaries only if we want to label them as such (and I agree we should), but there is also no reason why we can't continue living on a hotter earth or survive in a world with polluted ecosystems. Life would be worse for many, perhaps, but it would be life nonetheless. The boundaries, as Kate Raworth argues,49 are not given; they are boundaries of a collective good life, which we should choose.
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