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Crisis leads to ecological crossroads

Society needs a paradigm shift to protect natural resources and prevent problems such as recent flooding in Haiti


The current financial crisis presents an opportunity to re-examine the strain on natural resources, according to a Swiss expert.

Environmental economist Mathis Wackernagel tells swissinfo that it is time to rethink the concept of continuous growth.

Increased consumption of resources makes us poorer and undermines our future, he says.

Basel-born Wackernagel, who now lives in California, helped to develop the idea of the "ecological footprint", which provides a way of calculating how human demands on natural resources compare with the biosphere's ability to renew them.

swissinfo: Is there a direct connection between the financial crisis and our approach to natural resources?

Mathis Wackernagel: Yes, ecological shortages have an economic impact. Natural resources are at the beginning of every production chain. Pressure on resources is a driving force behind the global crisis, which started with the mortgage crisis in the US.

The collapse was inevitable. A shortage of resources leads to so-called stagflation. Everyday items become more expensive and the value of long-term investments falls. There is pressure from both sides.

That's exactly what happened in the US: the houses were mortgaged several times over. Oil prices rose, and the cost of driving to work and buying food rose with them. Soon a lot of people were no longer able to pay back their mortgages. Simultaneously the value of their houses fell.

swissinfo: How do you see the impact of the financial crisis on global environmental issues like climate change?

M.W.: Every crisis is also an opportunity, but as yet it is hard to say which direction the wind will blow in. We are standing at a crossroads: either we collectively recognise the challenge, or we dig ourselves deeper into our holes and build a "fortress world" where we don't cooperate with each other.

The way things are now, and particularly with the financial crisis, at the moment I tend to be pessimistic about the 2009 UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. As money becomes scarcer, it is likely to become harder to find solutions.

swissinfo: Could the financial crisis lead to a drop in the consumption of resources?

M.W.: A sharp fall in the use of resources in particular areas of the economy because of the financial crisis wouldn't of itself be a solution, of course. I hope we realise that the current trends in our use of resources will subvert our economies more and more if we don't change our ways.

It is a fact that the 21st century will be dominated by one issue: the shortage of natural resources. We have already seen where it can lead in places like Haiti or Darfur. Mankind is using up natural resources at a breakneck speed. At the moment this is happening at a rate that is 30 per cent faster than they can renew themselves.

If we don't alter our approach to natural resources, moderate UN forecasts indicate that by the year 2050 mankind's ecological footprint will have grown to twice the earth's biocapacity. If we don't stop our consumption, sooner or later we shall face ecological collapse.

swissinfo: Could the financial crisis have a positive impact on the environment in the short term, in that people in the industrialised states could change their (leisure) behaviour, fly less, drive less?

M.W.: That is possible. But given the pressing problems, that would only be a drop in the ocean. What the earth needs is a paradigm shift in the way we use natural resources.

swissinfo: What would that mean?

M.W.: The current financial crisis could be an opportunity. Those who preach continuous growth should realise that we cannot go on as we have been, that increased consumption of resources makes us poorer and undermines our future. Among other things we need ecological tax reforms, under which, to put it simply, work would be taxed less and energy more.

swissinfo: Is that enough?

M.W.: If ecological creditor countries – in other words, states which use fewer resources than they have at their disposal – could get together and drive a hard bargain with us in the ecological debtor countries, that would be a giant leap forward.

Then we would suddenly realise that we have to be much more careful with our natural capital. On the one hand we need to find new direction, above all in town planning. For example, building zero-energy cities. Even if it is cost intensive at the beginning, in the long run it pays: in lower energy consumption, lower costs and finally, less strain on the environment.

On the other hand, we ought to take the global and national population dynamics much more seriously, since the earth is finite. Otherwise we are condemning billions of people to a life of misery.

Women are central here. If women had more education, better health, better access to family planning and more opportunities, families would be smaller and life would be better for the children too: healthwise, educationally and economically. And that would mean that there would be less pressure on resources.

swissinfo-interview: Rita Emch in New York

Mathis Wackernagel

Mathis Wackernagel was born in Basel in 1962.

After studying engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he did his doctorate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Together with his professor, William Rees, he developed the concept of the "ecological footprint" as part of his dissertation.

Wackernagel has received several awards, including an honorary doctorate from Bern University in 2007.

Today he is the director of the Global Footprint Network, an organisation he founded in 2003 and which now has 30 employees. He lives with his wife and son in Oakland, California.

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Ecological footprint

An ecological footprint is the measurement of how much land and water area a population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste.

Currently humanity's ecological footprint is over 23 per cent larger than what the planet can regenerate.

The Global Footprint Network says that by measuring the ecological footprint of a population, people can assess any excesses, which in turns helps to manage ecological assets more carefully.

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