“In nature, the over-extension of a population upon a resource which diminishes is well known, and the results tend to be disastrous.” – Youngquist
The objectives of the following paper are to demonstrate quantitatively that America is irreparably overextended—living hopelessly beyond our means ecologically and economically; and to quantify the disastrous consequences associated with our “predicament”.
• Societal Overextension (America’s Predicament) • Quantifying Overextension
• Quantifying American Overextension • Consequences of American Overextension
• More “Inconvenient Truth”
Societal Overextension (America’s Predicament)
In a general sense, “societal overextension” is a condition in which a society is living beyond its means ecologically and economically. The significant consequence associated with societal overextension is that the society’s population level and material living standards exceed sustainable levels.
Societal overextension (overextension) occurs when a society’s lifestyle paradigm, its “way of life”, is enabled by the persistent overexploitation of ecological resources and economic resources.
In industrialized societies, ecological resources are the raw materials (natural resources) and waste repositories (natural habitats) that enable people to produce, provision, and utilize goods and services. Ecological resource overexploitation occurs when a society:
- Persistently utilizes renewable natural resources that are critical to its existence, such as water, croplands, pasturelands, fisheries, and forests, at levels greater than those at which Nature can replenish them;
- Persistently utilizes nonrenewable natural resources that are critical to its existence, such as oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and metals, which Nature does not replenish; and/or
- Persistently degrades atmospheric, aquatic, and terrestrial natural habitats that are critical to its existence, at levels greater than those at which Nature can regenerate them.
Economic resources provide the “purchasing power” that enables people to procure goods and services. Economic resource overexploitation occurs when a society:
- Persistently depletes its previously accumulated economic asset reserves;
- Persistently incurs intergenerational debt, which it has neither the capacity nor the intention to repay; and/or
- Persistently defers indefinitely investments critical to its future wellbeing.
An overextended society and its lifestyle paradigm are unsustainable, and will inevitably collapse.
Quantifying overextension enables the people within a society to understand the extent to which their existing way of life has diverged from a sustainable lifestyle paradigm. They can then understand the consequences associated with their overextended condition—i.e., the population level and living standard reductions to be experienced as a result of their inevitable transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm.
The process of quantifying overextension measures three societal resource utilization levels:
- Total resource utilization level: the total amount of resources utilized by a society over a fixed period of time, typically one year;
- Sustainable resource utilization level: the portion of the total resource amount that is sustainable—i.e., can continue indefinitely; and
- Unsustainable resource utilization level: the portion of the total resource amount that is not sustainable—i.e., cannot continue indefinitely.
Two overextension quantification methods are considered in the following paper, the Ecological Footprint Analysis (EFA), which was developed in 1990 to measure ecological overextension, and the Societal Overextension Analysis (SOA), which was developed to provide a more comprehensive assessment of overall societal overextension.
The Ecological Footprint Analysis measures the three resource utilization levels in terms of biologically productive global surface area; i.e., acres of land area and water area that produce the resources and absorb the wastes required to support human populations. In the EFA lexicon, a society’s total resource utilization level is referred to as its “ecological footprint”; its sustainable resource utilization level is referred to as “biocapacity”; and its unsustainable resource utilization level is referred to as “ecological deficit”.
The Societal Overextension Analysis (SOA) measures the three resource utilization levels in terms of monetary value; i.e., the dollar value associated with the goods and services consumed—produced, provisioned, procured, and utilized—by a society. Using SOA terminology, a society’s total resource utilization level is referred to as its “total consumption level”; its sustainable resource utilization level is referred to as its “sustainable consumption level”; and its unsustainable resource utilization level is referred to as its “unsustainable consumption level”.
Quantifying American Overextension
The following analysis quantifies American overextension—the extent to which we are currently living beyond our means ecologically and economically—by employing both the EFA and SOA analytical methods.
Ecological Footprint Analysis (EFA)
Two versions of the Ecological Footprint Analysis are presented, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) version and the Redefining Progress (RP) version. Both quantify the extent to which America’s annual ecological footprint—our total utilization of global natural resources and natural habitats—exceeds our annual biocapacity—Nature’s capacity to replenish our domestic natural resource reserves and to regenerate our domestic natural habitats.
Global Footprint Network (GFN) EFA
The Global Footprint Network (GFN) defines ecological footprint as a “resource accounting tool that measures how much biologically productive land and water area an individual, a city, a country, a region, or humanity uses to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management”. For example, in the year 2003 Iraq had a per capita ecological footprint of 2.1 acres, China 4.1 acres, India 1.9 acres, the UK 13.8 acres, and America 23.7 acres—world average 5.5 acres.
On average, 23.7 acres of planet earth’s surface area were utilized to produce the resources consumed and to assimilate the waste products generated by every American during 2003. However, America’s biocapacity, the domestic US surface area available to produce resources for consumption and to assimilate resulting waste products, was only 11.7 acres per capita—leaving a per capita ecological deficit of 12 acres.
Based on 2003 GFN data, 51% of America’s total resource utilization level was unsustainable; that is, enabled by “importing biocapacity, liquidating existing stocks of ecological capital, or allowing wastes to accumulate and ecosystems to degrade”.
Redefining Progress (RP) EFA
The ecological footprint analysis conducted by Redefining Progress (RP), an organization that employs a broader definition of ecological footprint, is even more alarming. RP calculated America’s 2001 per capita ecological footprint to be 269 acres and our per capita biocapacity to be 50 acres—leaving a per capita ecological deficit of 219 acres.
According to the RP EFA analysis, 81% of America’s 2001 total resource utilization level was unsustainable.
The Ecological Footprint Analysis was the groundbreaking attempt to quantify ecological overextension; it offers a “bottom-up” assessment of the extent to which current human utilization of specific renewable natural resources and natural habitats exceeds Nature’s capacity to replenish these resources and regenerate these habitats on a sustainable basis.
However, by considering only a subset of natural resources and habitats—cropland, pastureland, forests, fisheries, and carbon dioxide assimilation capacity—and by failing to consider explicitly the economic aspects of overextension, the EFA methodology tends to significantly understate societal overextension, especially in the case of highly-developed, industrialized societies such as America.
America’s natural resource utilization mix and our consequent overexploitation of natural resources are heavily skewed toward nonrenewable energy resources and mineral resources, which are not considered by the EFA method. Too, Americans have been able to augment the extent to which we live beyond our means ecologically, through unsustainable economic resource utilization behavior, which is not explicitly considered by the EFA method.
The Societal Overextension Analysis (SOA) method attempts to overcome these limitations.
Societal Overextension Analysis (SOA)
The Societal Overextension Analysis (SOA) quantifies American overextension by measuring the portion of our current total consumption level that is unsustainable; that is, the percentage by dollar value of goods and services that are produced, provisioned, procured, and utilized domestically through our overexploitation of ecological resources and/or economic resources.
Ecological overextension measures the portion of our current ecological resource utilization behavior that is unsustainable—i.e., the percentage of goods and services produced, provisioned, and utilized domestically through our overexploitation of natural resources and natural habitats.
In 2007, we used approximately 7 billion tons of natural resources—energy resources and non-energy mineral resources—to produce, provision, and utilize $13.84 trillion worth of goods and services in America. Of these resources, approximately 90% were nonrenewable natural resources, the ongoing use of which is unsustainable.
- 93% of our primary energy was produced from nonrenewable (unsustainable) natural resources; only 7% was produced by renewable (sustainable) energy sources;
- 90% of our electricity was generated by nonrenewable (unsustainable) natural resources; only 10% was generated by renewable (sustainable) energy sources;
- 87% of the non-energy minerals used as raw material inputs to the domestic US production of goods and services were newly extracted (unsustainable); only 13% were either recycled (8%) or renewable (5%) [sustainable].
Given that approximately 90% of the natural resource inputs to the 2007 US economy were unsustainable, it is estimated that 90%, or $12.46 trillion, of the corresponding output—the US production, provisioning, and utilization of goods and services that occurred during 2007—was unsustainable as well.
Economic overextension measures the portion of our current economic resource utilization behavior that is unsustainable—i.e., the percentage of goods and services procured domestically though our utilization of pseudo purchasing power—economic asset liquidation, intergenerational debt, and indefinitely deferred investments critical to our future wellbeing.
In 2007, our domestic procurement of goods and services totaled $16.82 trillion. Of that total, approximately 65%, or $10.94 trillion, was enabled by pseudo purchasing power, the ongoing use of which is unsustainable.
$10,941 (65%) 2007 US Procurements Enabled by Pseudo Purchasing Power ($billion)
$537 Economic asset liquidation ($billion)
$4,055 New intergenerational debt ($billion)
$6,349 Deferred investments critical to our future wellbeing ($billion)
<$5,879 (35%)  2007 US Procurements Enabled by Real Purchasing Power ($billion)<
$16,820 (100%) 2007 Total US Procurements of Goods and Services ($billion)
Societal overextension measures the portion of our current total consumption level that is unsustainable—i.e., the percentage of our production, provisioning, procurement, and utilization of goods and services that is enabled through our overexploitation of ecological resources (ecological overextension), our overexploitation of economic resources (economic overextension), or both.
2007 American societal overextension is depicted diagrammatically as 2007 American ecological overextension superimposed over 2007 American economic overextension. American societal overextension is the portion of our 2007 total consumption of goods and services that was unsustainable ecologically, unsustainable economically, or both (96.5%). Only the portion of our 2007 total consumption of goods and services that was sustainable from both an ecological perspective and an economic perspective was truly sustainable (3.5%).
Approximately 96.5% of our 2007 total consumption level of $16.82 trillion was unsustainable. That is, $16.23 trillion of our production, provisioning, procurement, and utilization of goods and services in 2007 was enabled by nonrenewable natural resources and/or pseudo purchasing power. Supplies associated with these resources are finite and dwindling; they will peak, decline, and exhaust.
The dollar value associated with the goods and services that we produced, provisioned, procured, and utilized sustainably in 2007—i.e., by using both renewable natural resources and real purchasing power—was approximately $590 billion, only 3.5% of our total consumption level.
Consequences of American Overextension
Irrespective of the method by which American societal overextension is measured, the extent to which we are currently living unsustainably beyond our means, both ecologically and economically, is appalling. The corresponding lifestyle disruptions associated with our inevitable transition from our American way of life to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm will be equally as appalling.
The following “population/living standard trade-off curves” depict the US population level and living standard combinations that are attainable at the resource utilization levels considered to be “sustainable” in each of the three preceding analyses. The diagrams provide estimates of the population level and living standard combinations that will be attainable within a sustainable American lifestyle paradigm.
Consequences of American Overextension per the EFA
Global Footprint Network Perspective
According to the GFN global footprint analysis, should we choose to maintain our current population level of 304 million people, our average material living standard would fall to about half of our current level—approximating the living standards in Saudi Arabia and Israel today.
Alternatively, if we choose to maintain our current living standard, America could support a sustainable population of only 150 million people.
Or, we could choose to reduce our population level and average living standards equally, by approximately 30% each. We could then expect a sustainable population of 215 million people with living standards comparable to those of Australia and Estonia today26.
Recall that the GFN Ecological Footprint Analysis significantly understates the extent to which we are currently overextended; it therefore likewise significantly understates the consequent reductions in our population level and living standards required to achieve sustainable levels.
Redefining Progress Perspective
Should we choose to maintain our current population level of 304 million people, the RP global footprint analysis indicates that our sustainable average living standard would be less than 20% of our current level—approximating that of Azerbaijan and Chile today.
If we choose to maintain our current living standard instead, America could sustainably support only 57 million people.
Or, should we choose to reduce our population level and living standards equally, by approximately 57% each, America could support a sustainable population of 132 million people with average material living standards comparable to those of Russia and The Czech Republic today27.
While the RP Ecological Footprint Analysis offers a more comprehensive assessment of the extent to which we are currently overextended than does the GFN analysis, the RP analysis also significantly understates the magnitude of our predicament and its associated consequences.
Consequences of American Overextension per the SOA
By explicitly considering our unsustainable utilization of both nonrenewable natural resources and economic resources, the SOA offers the most accurate assessment of both the extent to which we are overextended societally and the consequent population level and material living standard reductions that must accompany our inevitable transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm.
According to the Societal Overextension Analysis, should we choose to maintain our current population level of 304 million people, our sustainable average living standard would be approximately 3.5% of its current level—essentially that of Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan today.
If we choose instead to maintain our current living standard, America could support a sustainable population of only 10.7 million people.
Finally, by choosing to reduce our population level and living standards equally, by approximately 81% each, we could attain a sustainable population of 57 million people with average material living standards comparable to those of Iran and Panama today28.
More “Inconvenient Truth”
Magnitude of the Impending Consequences
Should the SOA estimates of our sustainable population level and living standard combinations seem inconceivably low, consider our lifestyle attributes in the year 1850 at the dawn of our American industrial revolution—the last time that our way of life was even remotely close to being sustainable.
America’s 1850 population was 23.3 million, 92% below our 2007 level; and our average material living standard, as defined by our annual per capita consumption level, was $2.4K (in 2007 dollars), 96% below our 2007 level.
It is quite possible that the 81% US population level and living standard reductions envisioned by the Societal Overextension Analysis also understate the reductions that we will actually experience in our inevitable transition to sustainability.
Probability and Timing of the Impending Consequences
The prevailing American perception is that “our system is broken” and must therefore be “fixed”, or “rescued”, or “bailed out”… This perception is fundamentally inaccurate; as a result, the proposed prescription is fatally flawed.
As the preceding analysis clearly demonstrates, we are irreparably overextended—living hopelessly beyond our means, ecologically and economically. Our resource utilization behavior, which enables our “system”—our American way of life—is detritovoric; that is, we are systematically eliminating the very ecological resources and economic resources upon which our ever-increasing population and our historically unprecedented living standards depend.
The inescapable conclusion is that our American way of life is not sustainable—it cannot, therefore, be “fixed”; it must be displaced. Desperate and futile attempts to perpetuate our existing lifestyle paradigm simply waste remaining, and increasingly scarce, time and resources.
Our only recourse is to transition voluntarily, beginning immediately, to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm, one in which we live within our means ecologically and economically—forever. Should we fail to do so, quickly, the consequences associated with our predicament will be horrific.
2050 will be “the new 1850”—if we are lucky!
“Industrial Civilization doesn’t evolve. Rather, it rapidly consumes ‘the necessary physical prerequisites’ for its own existence. It’s short-term, unsustainable.” – Duncan
- Youngquist, Walter, 1997, “Geodestinies”, National Book Company, Portland, OR, pg. 158.
- Global Footprint Network “At a Glance” http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=ataglance.
- Wackernagel, Mathis, et al., 2007, “Current Methods for Calculating National Ecological Footprint Accounts”, “Science for Environment & Sustainable Society”, Volume 4 #1, pg. 1.
- “National Footprints”, click on ‘Download National Footprint Results’ http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=national_footprints.
- “National Footprints”, click on ‘Download National Footprint Results’ http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=national_footprints.
- “National Footprints” http://www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=national_footprints.
- “Ecological Footprint and Ecological Balance Per Capita in Global Hectares (2001 data), Appendix 1” http://www.footprintofnations.org/Excel/Footprint%20of%20Nations%202005%20(2).pdf.
- RP “Ecological footprint estimates” (hectares converted to acres) http://www.footprintofnations.org/Excel/Sample.xls.
- The SOA does not consider natural habitat utilization explicitly, under the assumption that sufficient domestic natural habitat capacity exists to assimilate wastes generated by the sustainable portion of goods and services produced, provisioned, and utilized in the US. In the event that this assumption is optimistic, the extent to which we are ecologically overextended is even greater than the SOA indicates.
- Mineral Information Institute, 2008, “Mineral Baby” http://www.mii.org/pdfs/Baby_Info.pdf.
- “Flow of Funds Accounts of the United States, US Federal Reserve, 2008, table F.6 (US GDP), http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/annuals/a2005-2007.pdf.
- US EIA, “Primary Energy Consumption by Source” (2007 figures), Annual Energy Review 2007 http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/pdf/pages/sec1_9.pdf.
- US EIA, “(Electricity) Net Generation by Source” (2007 figures), May 2008 http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html.
- Brown, “Sociocultural and Institutional Drivers and Constraints to Mineral Supply”; USGS 2002; pg. 41 (recycled metals) http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-333/of02-333.pdf and
“Recycled Aggregates–Profitable Resource Conservation”, USGS 2000, pg. 1 (recycled industrial minerals) http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-0181-99/fs-0181-99so.pdf.
- Wagner, Sullivan, and Sznopek, “Economic Drivers of Mineral Supply“; USGS 2002; pg. 23 http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-335/of02-335.pdf.
- It could easily be argued that since 90% of the enabling raw material inputs to our economic system—energy resources and non-energy resources—are unsustainable, none of the corresponding product and service outputs from the system is sustainable; the logic being that if any element of the input mix to a specific product or service ceases to exist, the entire product or service (output) ceases to exist.
- Our 2007 total procurement level of $16.82 trillion greatly exceeded our total domestic economic output level (GDP) of $13.84 trillion because the sum of the elements comprising our total procurement level—national income, incremental credit market debt, and net asset liquidation—greatly exceeded the value of goods and services that we actually produced and provisioned domestically in 2007. The variance between our total 2007 procurement level and our total economic output is accounted for by our net procurement of imports and our 2007 procurement of previously produced (used) goods.
- 65% of our total 2007 procurement level was enabled by pseudo purchasing power: economic asset liquidation, new intergenerational debt, and the portion of our national income that should have been allocated to investments in our future wellbeing, but was instead allocated toward current consumption.
- 2007 economic asset liquidation consisted of $216 billion in net foreign purchases of US assets (2007 NIIP Change) [table 2] http://www.bea.gov/international/xls/intinv07_t2.xls; and $321 billion in currency (USD) inflation (2.7%) http://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/uscompare/result.php.
- 2007 new intergenerational debt consisted of $4,055 billion in new credit market debt at the government, corporate, and individual levels; debt that we have neither the capacity nor the intent to repay (table F.1) http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/annuals/a2005-2007.pdf.
- 2007 deferred investments critical to our future wellbeing consisted of $645 billion in underfunded personal savings—the difference between our 2007 actual savings level of $163 billion (table F.10) http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/annuals/a2005-2007.pdf], and 8% of our 2007 Disposable Personal Income, which is approximately our average historical savings rate (pgs. 4-5) http://www.ebri.org/pdf/publications/books/databook/DB.Chapter%2009.pdf; $1,009 billion in unfunded Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid obligations—derived from Gokhale and Smetters (pg. 1) http://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/events/2005/fed-policy-forum/papers/Smetters-Assessing_the_Federal_Government.pdf; $500 billion in unfunded pension plan obligations—approximately $5 trillion total ($4.5 trillion federal, $284 billion state, and $140 corporate) spread over 10 years (NPR from S&P report: June 2006) http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=5454161&m=5454162; $320 billion in unfunded infrastructure investment—approximately $1.6 trillion spread over 5 years, 2005 ASCE Report Card http://www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/page.cfm?id=103; and $3,875 billion in incremental credit market debt incurred in 2006 that was not repaid in 2007 (table F.1) http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/annuals/a2005-2007.pdf.
- Only 35% of our total 2007 procurement level was enabled by real purchasing power—the portion of our national income that should properly have been allocated toward current consumption ($12,228 billion in 2007 US national income minus $6,349 billion in deferred investments critical to our future wellbeing [pseudo purchasing power], equals $5,879 billion in real purchasing power).
The three red squares measure the 96.5% ($16.23 trillion) of goods and services that were “consumed unsustainably” in the US during 2007; that is, by using unsustainable ecological resources AND/OR unsustainable economic resources. The green square measures the 3.5% ($590 billion) of US goods and services that were “consumed sustainably” in 2007; that is, by using sustainable ecological resources AND sustainable economic resources.
- Supply shortages or disruptions associated with all or even the most critical ecological and/or economic resources need not occur in order to cause severe lifestyle disruptions or societal collapse. As Liebig’s Law of the Minimum observes, “growth is controlled not by the total of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor)”. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebig’s_law_of_the_minimum.
- The actual population level/living standard combinations attainable within a sustainable lifestyle paradigm cannot be known with certainty at this point, because the factors that will determine attainable population and living standard levels following our transition to sustainability—the specific mix and levels of domestically available ecological and economic resources, and our capacity to effectively utilize these resources—cannot be known with certainty at this point. All that is known with certainty are the resource types that will comprise our sustainable resource mix: replenished renewable natural resources, recycled nonrenewable natural resources, regenerated natural habitats, and real purchasing power.
- GFN National Footprints; click on “Download National Footprint Results”
- RP “Ecological footprint estimates” (hectares converted to acres) http://www.footprintofnations.org/Excel/Sample.xls.
- 2007 per capita GDP data from IMF, World Bank, and CIA Factbook (Wikipedia)
- US population in 1850 http://www.measuringworth.org/datasets/usgdp/result.php.
- NBER Macrohistory VII. Foreign Trade, US imports for the last 6 months of 1866 (series m7028) were approximately $150 million—used as an approximation for full year 1850 US imports http://www.nber.org/databases/macrohistory/contents/chapter07.html; added to 1850 GDP of $2.56 billion http://www.measuringworth.org/datasets/usgdp/result.php to obtain $2.7 billion in “total consumption” in 1850 (nominal); per capita consumption (living standard) was therefore $2,388 [in 2007 dollars] http://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/uscompare/result.php.
- Clugston, Chris, 2008, “America’s Self-Inflicted Societal Collapse” http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46564.
- For more evidence of America’s impending societal collapse, see Clugston, “Our American Way of Life is Unsustainable—Evidence”; 2008 http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46276.
- On page 168 of “Overshoot”, William Catton offers a general explanation of detritus ecosystems, in which organisms, detritovores, consume the finite food supply available within their habitat, bloom in the process, then crash (die-off) once the food supply becomes exhausted. He then goes on to explain detritovoric behavior as it pertains to human beings, “It is therefore understandable that people welcomed ways of becoming colossal, not recognizing as a kind of detritus the transformed organic remains called “fossil fuels,” and not noticing that Homo colossus was in fact a detritovore, subject to the risk of crashing as a consequence of blooming.”; “Overshoot”, page 169; also – http://dieoff.org/page15.htm.
- For the underlying logic behind this assertion, see Clugston, “On American Sustainability—Summary”, 2008 http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46243.
- Richard Duncan proposes and explains the “Olduvai Theory”—the life of industrialized civilization will be approximately 100 years, from 1930 to 2030 http://www.dieoff.org/page125.htm.
- Duncan, Richard, “The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age”, 1996 http://www.dieoff.org/page125.htm.
Author Bio (Chris Clugston): For the past three years I have conducted extensive independent research into the area of sustainability, the goals of which are to quantify from a combined ecological and economic perspective the extent to which America is currently overextended—having diverged from a sustainable lifestyle paradigm—and to understand the causes, implications, and possible solutions associated with our predicament.
Prior to that I spent thirty years working with information technology sector companies in marketing, sales, finance, M&A, and general management—the last twenty as a corporate chief executive and management consultant. I received an AB/Political Science, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State University, and an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.