Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Running on empty

It probably slipped past without so much as a blip on the Richter scale of life. Our busy, consumer-led lives likely won’t have notched up that a couple of weeks ago (20 August 2013) was the date humanity exhausted nature’s annual budget for our planet.

As a result we are now operating in overdraft mode and, for the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Just as a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, the Global Footprint Network measures humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and ecological services. The data is somewhat sobering.

Global Footprint Network estimates that it now takes only approximately eight months for the world’s population as a whole to demand more renewable resources and carbon dioxide sequestration than Earth can provide for an entire year.

Earth Overshoot Day, a concept originally developed by Global Footprint Network partner and UK think tank the New Economics Foundation, is the annual marker of when we begin living beyond our means in a given year.

While only a rough estimate of time and resource trends, it is as close as we can get to measuring the gap between our demand for ecological resources and services, and how much the planet can provide.

Just over a decade ago Earth Overshoot Day fell on 21 October. Given current trends in consumption, one thing is clear - it is relentlessly creeping forward and arriving earlier each year.

Throughout most of history, humanity has used nature’s resources to build homes, towns, cities and roads, to provide food and create products, and to absorb our carbon dioxide at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But, in the mid-1970s, we crossed a critical threshold when human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce.

The fact that we are now using, or ‘spending’, our natural capital much faster than it can be replenished is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income, a financial deficit.

In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change - a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans - is one of the most obvious and arguably pressing result.

But there are others - shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices, civil unrest and water shortages, to name a few. The environmental and economic crises we are beginning to experience more frequently are symptoms of looming catastrophe.

While the global financial recession that began in October 2008 slowed humanity’s demand for resources somewhat, our overall consumption continues to rise.

To stand any chance of avoiding much more than economic hardship for the planet’s seven billion and growing population, resource limits must be at the core of future decision-making.

Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations that use more than their own ecosystems can renew. These ‘ecological debtor’ countries either deplete their own ecological resources or get them from elsewhere.

Ecological debtors are using more than they have within their own borders. Japan’s residents consume the ecological resources of 7.1 Japans. It would take four Italys to support Italy, and 3.5 UK’s - all just at current rates of consumption.

Not every country demands more than their ecosystems can provide, but even the reserves of such ‘ecological creditors’ like Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden are shrinking over time.

Just as in the financial crisis of 2008, we can no longer sustain a widening gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require.

As Earth Overshoot Day continues its inexorable and quickening march closer to the start of each year we have no real idea of the consequences our living in this way will ultimately have. One thing is for sure, though. We all have some tough choices - both individually and as nations - coming up.


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