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In the Red: World Surpasses Annual Natural Resource Budget

picwaterLast week, on August 19, the planet reached Earth Overshoot Day. Also known as Ecological Debt Day, the date marks the point at which “humanity has used up its natural resource budget for the year”, including land, trees, and food. In other words, “our use of resources has started to exceed the Earth’s ability to regenerate”.

The Global Footprint Network, a California-based non-profit, calculates Earth Overshoot Day annually. The Network divides the “world’s biocapacity – the amount of natural resources generated by the planet that year – by humanity’s natural consumption of Earth’s resources”. It factors in approximately 6,000 data points for 230 countries, territories, and regions. It then multiplies the total by the number of days in a year. According to the Network, the result is accurate within 15%.

The arrival of Earth Overshoot Day on August 19 is certainly worrisome. As noted in the Daily Mail, “Earth is in overdraft just EIGHT months into the year”. But even more alarming is the shift in the Earth Overshoot Day over time. In 1961, “humans used only around 3/4 of the Earth’s capacity for generating food, timber, fish and absorbing greenhouse gases, with most countries having more resources than they consumed”. Since then, however, the earth overshoot day has crept up earlier each year. In 1967, the US began consuming more than its natural budget. By the 1970s, “enough countries had moved from ecological creditor to ecological debtor status that the earth as a whole was overshooting its sustainable supply of critical resources”. This upward creep has accelerated in recent years. In 2000, the Earth Overshoot Day was November 1. In 2009, it was September 25.

According to Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network, the Global overshoot is becoming “a defining challenge of the 21st century”. Already, in 2014, it would take 1.5 Earths to produce the renewable resources needed to support current human consumption. By mid-century, however, “moderate population, energy and food projections suggest that humanity would require the biocapacity of 3 planets”. The resulting “deforestation, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and the build-up of CO2 in our atmosphere” will come with enormous human and economic costs. Countries with resource deficits and low incomes are particularly vulnerable, but high-income countries will also pay a price.

In response, the Global Footprint Network urges countries to implement long-term solutions before “such dependencies…turn into a significant economic stress”. In the words of Wackernagel, “Government can always print more money, but it can’t print more planet. Ecological overshoot should lead the political agenda”. Already, Global Footprint has inspired several countries to take action. The Philippines is implementing national land-use planning, Morocco is investing in sustainable agriculture systems, and the UAE is installing high-efficiency lighting. Individuals can also act. Using the organization’s personal calculator, they can pinpoint their own overshoot day, and reduce their consumption accordingly.

To learn more, please contact the Global Footprint Network, the Environmental Defense Fund, or our partners, the Ocean River Instituteand Solar Sonoma County.

Flickr photo credit: Bryan Wysoglad