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Overshoot, mega-regions & outer space: Atlantis or apocalypse?

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Overshoot, mega-regions & outer space: Atlantis or apocalypse?

Just as we balance our own expenditures and income every now and then, and our countries also calculate the fiscal-year accounts in similar fashion, measuring both global resource consumption and production has also become an annual exercise. What is dubbed Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) weighs the world's bio-capacity through its ecological footprints. By adding up all the natural resources tapped for production in any given year, then all the consumption humans make during that year, the EOD ratio is deduced by dividing the former with the latter, before multiplying with 365 (days in the year). In the first year of recording, 1970, the EOD balance was 1, that is, our consumption and production squared off evenly: the December 31 score was roughly what it was the previous January 1. The more we consume over production, the falling ratio warns us of heading in the wrong and unsustainable direction.

Unfortunately, our post-1972 consumption expanded more than production, meaning the parity December 31-January 1 ratio could not be kept. Except for the global recession years 1981-3, and more recently 2008-9, greater consumption than production meant reaching our December 31 quota earlier in the year. Last year, for instance, the December 31 expected ratio was attained as early as on August 1. Worse still, we consumed this year's expected production level on July 29, showing how this materialistic bug inside us consuming more resources than Mother Earth produces, means without another planet, we are doomed. This year we consumed resources of 1.7 'earths', that is, 70 per cent more than the natural resources produced on this earth.

This Earth Overshoot Day must then be seen as 'a day of infamy' since it shows our gluttony trumping our sustainability instinct. Optimising earth's production or finding another earth quickly cannot but become an imperative. Thankfully, we have recognised that. All that is left is for our niggardly actions to be better tuned or catalysed.

Whether it is out of our gluttonous constitution or balanced-budget mindedness, we have been aggregating cities and/or countries to extract more mileage from our production, while also exploring outer-space for another livable planet. Creating regional trading blocs began as early as World War II through customs unions, of which BENELUX (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg) emerged, in 1958, as the least complicated. The idea was simultaneously reflected in another 1958 document, the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community. It subsequently sprawled into the European Union of 28 member countries, so big, in fact, it can only shake, rattle, and roll, as it is doing with Brexit today, with Great Britain's desire to leave this month. Such a surge towards efficient production became a global theme until 9/11, and though many cases struggle, only a few have actually collapsed or been abandoned.

On another plane has been the emergence of mega cities, many within national boundaries, though some cross over. Known as mega-regions, this list is topped by the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor in the United States, a country with 9 of the top-30 such regions, with four in the top-10 alone: after the north-east corridor, there are Chicago-Pittsburgh (#3), Los Angeles-San Diego, or Socal (#5), and the Texas Triangle of Austin-Dallas-Houston-San Antonio (#7). Those crossing national boundaries include Buffalo-Rochester-Toronto (#25), and Delhi-Lahore (#27). Kuala Lumpur-Singapore (#21) ranks higher, but China's late entry could produce many other cases than the 2 it currently has. Imam Ghosh isolates three criteria to explain them ("These mega regions are driving our global economy," World Economic Forum Newsletter, September 30, 2019): a region of continuous light (visible at night by satellites), a population of at least 5 million, and an output of at least $300 billion. Nationalism and emergent populism hinder easy cultivation, but the potential to help consolidate reclamation of a balanced consumption-production footprint is clearly there.

This is a relevant consideration for Bangladesh, given the (a) growth of Greater Dhaka, (b) the development of special economic zones and/or export processing zones; and (c) the possibilities of incorporating Khulna, Mymensingh, and Sylhet to expand output value further. That $300 billion may be the toughest nut to crack, but not unreachable should diversification and extensions, even to Kolkata, become policy priorities.

Far more difficult not just for us but over 90 per cent of all countries is space exploration. To be sure, exploration is feasible, and putting satellites up there is becoming one of the hottest games on this planet. Yet, the down-payment for becoming a competitor eventually is too staggering for Bangladesh to even try: we could easily free-ride on some other country, like India or China, for example, in return, of course, for compensatory exchanges, rather than go beyond the satellite-driven facilitative targets into, for example, occupying space in space.

This outer-space frontier replicates terrestrial patterns: both countries competing against each other here on Mother Earth right after World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States, lead the outer-space race. Earlier footprints for both can be found in the Germany of the 1930s: the country's space brainchild, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr Von Braun, before he defected to the United States, influenced his Soviet counterpart, Sergei Korolev. The latter was instrumental in putting Sputnik into outer space in 1957, the first ever, with Yuri Gagarin and Alan B. Shephard becoming the first humans to follow, both in 1961 -- the Russian in April, his U.S. counterpart one month later. The bilateral space-race stayed in high gear for decades before petering off, with funding being a serious constraint.

Cutting a long story short, China is not only the latest challenger in outer space, but its tracks echo its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) terrestrial accomplishment. Its Chang'e-4 probe in January this year was very unlike China's previous global philosophy: remain a calm observer, and refrain from claiming a world leadership. Xi Jinping's more aggressive approach is captured in the expansionism-oriented Chang'e-4 probe.

With India also ramping up outer space exploration, it looks like the search for another planet (or Plan B for us earthlings) is taking serious shape: we have neared the limits of earth's resources or we have inflicted enough damage to the earth to continue habiting it infinitely (for instance through deforestation and the plastic ocean-dumping entering our food-chain), or both. After leading the pollution of this planet because of its greater drive to modernise quickly, China now both leads the green restoration of this planet and outer-space searches through Chang'e-4, for that elusive Plan B.  Chang'e-4 belongs to the 'Long March' family of rocket boosters, named after Mao Zedong's historical 1930s march, as part of its Space Launch System, indicating it as an ambitious vital Chinese interest.

Whether the future holds fatal disaster or rejuvenation for us earthlings will entirely depend upon us, and how we can rein in our guts and matters guttural. All the pieces are in place to hold the world at bay: the World Overshoot Day ratio crossing some red-line; the mega-region expansion being blown asunder by any of a long list of catastrophes, whether climatic or terrorist; or simply some outer space mishap from having too many competitors scraping too sensitive a part of the solar system. Apocalypse may stare us in the face, but visions of Atlantis also remain ingrained within us.


Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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