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See Inside September 2010

How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth's Resources

A graphical accounting of the limits to what one planet can provide

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If the 20th century was an expansive era seemingly without boundaries—a time of jet planes, space travel and the Internet—the early years of the 21st have showed us the limits of our small world. Regional blackouts remind us that the flow of energy we used to take for granted may be in tight supply. The once mighty Colorado River, tapped by thirsty metropolises of the desert West, no longer reaches the ocean. Oil is so hard to find that new wells extend many kilometers underneath the seafloor. The boundless atmosphere is now reeling from two centuries’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions. Even life itself seems to be running out, as biologists warn that we are in the midst of a global extinction event comparable to the last throes of the dinosaurs.

The constraints on our resources and environment—compounded by the rise of the middle class in nations such as China and India—will shape the rest of this century and beyond. Here is a visual accounting of what we have left to work with, a map of our resources plotted against time.

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