Time is running out to save the planet

Nothing seems quite as small or insignificant as a grain of sand. But when enough of them are piled on top of one another, they can become a deadly threat.

In 2017, 40 billion metric tonnes of sand were extracted from the planet’s beaches, rivers and seabed. It is the second most consumed resource on earth after water, used to build roads and residential buildings, smartphones and drinking glasses. Every year, our beaches continue to be tacitly emptied at the same rate as our cities are growing. Beaches in Singapore and Morocco are already beginning to disappear as the world scrambles to meet the insatiable demand of its seven billion inhabitants. If we continue at this rate, how many shores will be left by 2060, when the global population will have grown to ten billion?

As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has warned, the extraction of sand – similarly to that of fossil fuels, minerals and biofuels – will double over the next forty years. To maintain our current way of life, we will need 167 billion metric tonnes of raw materials, compared with the 90 billion tons that we consume today.

And there is no Earth that could take this.

“What the OECD is saying now, scientists have been warning about for a long time,” says Antonio Valero, director of the Research Centre for Energy Resources and Consumption (CIRCE). “If we continue at this rate, over the next few years we’ll consume the equivalent of what human beings have consumed over their entire history.”

Valero emphasises the so-called critical raw materials. These are minerals such as gold, platinum and cobalt – 27 in total – that are essential to both contemporary technologies (mobile phones, tablets, electric vehicles) and to future ones (think automation), but are on the verge of being exhausted.

“They are becoming increasingly scarce and have to be sought deeper and deeper in the earth. The more minerals we demand, the more energy we need to extract new supplies. That’s why the environmental impact is so significant.”

There are no scientists who refute the fact that we are coming dangerously close to our limits. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that we have just 12 years remaining to limit global warming to 1.5°C. According to the panel, we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes.” Otherwise, we will end up crossing the red line – and no one knows what awaits us on the other side.

“An increase like that of just one and a half degrees will put us in unknown territory. We don’t know what effects it will have on migration or the economy, how many fires there will be, how many cold waves,” says Miguel Ángel Soto, spokesperson for Greenpeace Spain. “Once we hit the point of no return, things get complicated. And in the era of populist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro who want to pull out of the Paris Agreement, we may get there even sooner.”

Recycling is no longer enough

The world generates 228,000 tons of rubbish every hour. We produce a colossal volume of cans, containers, food waste and electronic devices, of which only 19 per cent are recycled.

This is happening because a large part of humanity – more than three billion people – does not have access to waste management services. And those of us who do have access to such services do not take full advantage of them. This includes the countries with the highest recycling rates, such as Germany and Austria, which only recycle half of their waste. This is due in part to the enormous amount of energy that this process requires.

“Drastic changes” are needed, according to the IPCC. Recycling alone isn’t enough; the entire model of production has to be changed. The idea of a circular economy has been spreading since 2015.

It is based on reducing as much waste as possible – ensuring, in other words, that products last as long as possible, and that they can be repaired, updated, or broken down into smaller reusable elements when they reach the end of their lifespans.

“It’s a change in our model that’s inspired by nature,” explains Elena Ruiz, circular economy specialist at the association Forética. “Nature doesn’t generate waste, everything is used.” This is the essential change we must make to our objectives.

“We have to redesign products in order to better reuse them, so that raw materials and minerals are easier to recover,” argues the director of CIRCE. If we can recover them, we won’t have to extract more.

According to its advocates, this model is so good that it will create jobs (in repair and manufacturing) and, by saving raw materials, even increase GDP. For the time being, however, this model is not being adopted consistently. While some are talking about getting rid of rubbish bins, many companies continue to waste kilometres worth of plastic wrapping for pre-peeled fruit. “As with any change, it will require a period of adaptation. We’re talking about changing a system which has functioned the same way since the Industrial Revolution,” argues Ruiz.

But as we are just 12 years away from the threshold of the unknown, the question is whether our current growth model will allow us to get where we need to be. "The circular economy is a good approach, but by itself it’s not enough," insists anthropologist and environmental activist Yayo Herrero. "What we need is degrowth.”

It’s the same idea that was recently put forward by 200 academics in a manifesto addressed to the European Union: we have to stop growing. It’s impossible for the economy to continue expanding on a planet with finite resources. To this end, they propose measures such as limiting the use of resources, establishing a basic universal income for all and reducing working hours. According to them, we don’t need more growth; we need to distribute the wealth that already exists. As Herrero argues: “If we continue to maintain this irrational economy, there will be fewer and fewer beneficiaries. Whatever happens, we’re going to have to learn to live with less.”

Reducing in the age of Amazon

The word ‘consume’ has several interesting meanings: deplete, exhaust, extinguish, destroy. Seen in this light, consumers are in fact destroyers. You can look it up in any dictionary.

And yet we continue to consume/destroy more. Following the period of downturn that began in 2009, purchases have been growing again at a rate of 2 per cent annually. In Europe alone, we will have spent more than 600 billion euros on online purchases by the end of this year – 13 per cent more than last year.

The world is falling apart and we’re at home waiting for our Amazon delivery.

“We believe that quality of life is achieved when we are able to consume more. This ultimately translates not only to overconsumption, but also to overwork,” says Ricardo García Mira. An expert in environmental psychology, García Mira studies models for sustainable living in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. Because yes, there are exceptions.

“We live in a bubble of increasingly aware people within an increasingly consumerist society,” say Patricia Reina and Fernando Gómez. In 2015, this Spanish couple set out to live without plastic – or with as little as possible. “At first it feels good to recycle, but then you realise that you’re filling a rubbish bag with plastics every three days,” says Patricia. That’s why they decided to eliminate almost everything: bin bags, plastic wrap, disposable blades, toothpaste, deodorant. They replaced them with homemade or plastic-free alternatives. “Achieving zero plastic is impossible, but everyone can reduce to the best of their ability.”

"It’s a shared responsibility. First you have to examine your own consumption, and then you can make demands on governments and companies," Fernando points out. “We’re not moving into a cave or anything. It’s just responsible consumption.”

Most Europeans today acknowledge that climate change exists, but only a quarter say they feel “very” or “extremely” concerned.

Despite extensive scientific literature, many believe that agroecology is nothing but a trend, and see banning single-use plastics as an inconvenience. What they don’t understand is that we have no other option – we’re living on borrowed time. If we don’t set limits for ourselves, the planet will do it for us.

This article has been translated from Spanish.