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Published on August 21st, 2013 | by Silvio Marcacci

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Earth Overshoot Day Means Humanity Is Bouncing Our Ecological Checks

Anyone who has had their own bank account knows this simple equation: withdraw more than you’ve got, and you’ll overdraw your account and start owing people money.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Earth is officially bouncing its ecological checks as of today – Earth Overshoot Day – the approximate day our resource consumption in a given year exceeds the planet’s ability to replenish itself.

While it’s only a rough estimate of how fast humanity is drawing down our ecological bank accounts, Earth Overshoot day has arrived sooner than ever before. This stark reminder of the growing pressure humans are putting on our natural resources means we’re borrowing against future generations to cover today’s bills.

Earth Overshoot Day Coming Sooner Each Year

Humanity has always used Earth’s abundant resources to grow our civilization – building infrastructure, growing food, developing economies, and absorbing carbon emissions. But sometime in the mid 1970s, all that changed, and our consumption began outstripping the planet’s ability to recharge its resources.

In 1993, Earth Overshoot Day occurred on October 21. In 2003, it hit on September 22. In 2012, we reached it on August 22. If it seems like this imbalance is coming sooner and sooner, it’s because since 2001, Earth Overshoot Day has moved ahead an average of 3 days per year.

At this rate, we’re using natural resources at a rate equal to just over 1.5 Earths per year. And by mid-century, were on track to require the resources of two Earths every year.

Earth Overshoot Day country footprints

Earth Overshoot Day country footprints image via Global Footprint Network

Faster Consumption=Less Resources

The manifestation of this imbalance is starting to become clearer and clearer. We’re all familiar with the growing effects of global warming and climate change, but other problems like deforestation, collapsing fisheries, and civil unrest are happening at a faster rate with every year – the ecological equivalent of bouncing a check.

“Facing such constraints has direct impacts on people,” said Mathias Nackernagel, Global Footprint Network president. “ Lower-income populations have a hard time competing with the rest of the world for resources.

More than 80% of the world’s population now lives in countries that use more resources than their ecosystems can sustain, but which countries are the worst stewards of their natural resources?

More Ecological Debtors Than Creditors

Earth Overshoot Day national resources

Earth Overshoot Day national resources image via Global Footprint Network

Unsurprisingly, China clocks in with the world’s largest ecological footprint. While its per capita footprint is much smaller than those in Europe and North America, the sheer volume of its population means it uses resources at the rate of 1.2 Earths.

But China’s not alone. America uses resources at the rate of 4 Earths annually, while Qatar uses an average of 6.5 Earths annually. Japan consumes 7.1 times higher its resources sustain, while Italy uses resources 4 times its ability.

Fortunately, some nations serve as “ecological creditors” that help balance out the overdrafts of most others. Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden all use fewer resources than their ecosystems can sustain, but Global Footprint Network notes even these reserves are shrinking over time.

So with 7 billion people currently on Earth, 2 billion currently living without access to the resources required to meet their basic needs, and global populations expected to pass 9 billion by 2050, the time to change our consumption habits is far past us.

Earth Overshoot Day is a grim reminder of how fast we’re using up the planet’s resources – but it’s also a reminder we still have time to change our ways. But we’ll need to rethink how to live sustainably in order to do so. As Global Footprint Network says, “rather than liquidating resources, it is wiser to treat them as an ongoing source of wealth.”



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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate-focused public relations company based in Washington, D.C.



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