For a number of years I toiled in the oil industry as an engineer, and not infrequently lessons I learned from my engineering experience return to inform me in other contexts. Recently I have been thinking of the global economy in such terms, and it fails miserably to pass the test of good engineering.
When an engineer designs a bridge he doesn't simply design the supports to meet the stresses he expects to be imposed upon them. He conservatively designs the supports to meet the expected stresses—and then adds a generous safety factor. In other words, he follows the precautionary principle, knowing that he cannot account for every eventuality.
And that is the way a sensible society would design its economy. It would conservatively estimate the demands the environment is capable of meeting from resource extraction and waste disposal, and then add in a generous safety factor. It would then design its economic activities to fit into the calculated environmental capacity.
Unfortunately for society after society, civilization after civilization, throughout history, humanity has not done that. The usual practice has been to exploit the environment to whatever extent the desired economy demands, even if that pushes it to the maximum. And then, when the maximum shrinks, as it always does, due to drought or flood or other whim of nature, that society's economy is threatened, not infrequently to the point where it collapses, bringing society down with it. This is a pattern repeated over and over, yet we have never learned the lesson of living within our means, or more correctly, within the means of our environment.
Past civilizations might have been able to plead ignorance for their failure. They didn't fully understand the relationship between their economy and the environment. We do, we are by far the best informed generation in history, and yet we are making the same mistake. In our case, it isn't ignorance, it's stupidity.
According to the Global Footprint Network, we are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources
we use and to absorb our waste. UN scenarios suggest that if current trends continue, by the 2030s we will need the equivalent
of two Earths to support us. Unfortunately, we only have one.
Representing the amount of productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a population consumes plus the waste it produces in global hectares (gha), the Earth's biocapacity is estimated at 1.8 gha per person. Our actual demand, however, our global footprint, is 2.6 gha per person. We are sucking the planet dry.
We frequently hear talk about balancing the economy and the environment, but this is an error. The environment has no need of our economy, indeed it would be vastly better off without it, but our economy is totally dependent on the environment. Our economy must, therefore, not balance the environment but fit comfortably within it with room to spare. Only then will we have a well-engineered economy and only then will our civilization be able to sustain itself.