Viewed from above, the earth is a small blue marble, hurtling through time and space. Standing on the surface though, the vast forests and massive peaks betray how limited earth really is. The issue of scales, both temporal and spatial, make it difficult to grasp the earth’s limits. For the past two hundred years, since the Industrial Revolution, our population and economy has grown exponentially. While the latter seems like a positive and the former may also have its benefits, the natural laws that govern our universe present a bit of a challenge. Both these sectors have grown uninterrupted. The Great Depression and recent economic downturn aside, there has been little in the way of checks on the upward trend in either population or economic growth.
Can we continue this way? Economics is essentially the study of limits. Our earth represents several finite features. For one, matter – the stuff that makes up everything – is not unlimited. Sometimes it seems like there is a limitless amount of material to build, construct, and create. The shelves of stores across the US and much of the world are stocked with tchotchkes of various origins. Where does it all come from, and just as importantly, where does it all go? Since “there is no away,” (matter can’t be destroyed) all our waste has to go somewhere. This is why recycling, composting, and Cradle to Cradle design are so important.
We, as a species and a global society, cannot grow indefinitely. Reports of species extinction and peak oil are two examples of the limits to growth discussed nearly forty years ago by Dana Meadows. The first issue, species extinction, is an example of the spatial limit we face. As our population spreads out, demanding more space to live and grow food, we encroach upon other species’ habitats and push them to potential extinction. The second point – peak oil – is but one example of resource depletion. While there are renewable sources of biologically based oil being developed, the crude oil extracted from underground deposits is finite.
Some may say that technology will provide an answer, as in the case of bio-fuels. Others argue that biodiversity is not a significant concern. Without maintaining the diversity of life on the planet, we become more susceptible to disease and less resilient in the face of a changing world.