As of Wednesday, we good people of Planet Earth will have burned through our annual budget of natural resources earlier than in any of the 48 years the environmental research group Global Footprint Network has kept records.
“Earth Overshoot Day” is the day on which human beings’ yearly demand on natural resources exceeds that which the planet environment can renew on its own.
To put that date — Aug. 1 — in perspective, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Dec. 29th in 1970, the first year researchers began keeping track.
Earth’s growing — and increasingly unsustainable — population is part of the problem. But not the only problem. Growing birthrates in the developing world, where the population of people under 30 exceeds 65% in many sub-Saharan countries across Africa, for example, are not the key factor some might think.
The real culprit is consumption, in particular consumption in the developed world. Especially the Northern Hemisphere. Researchers determined that if the entire world’s population consumed resources at the rate as people who live in the U.K. do, Earth Overshoot Day would actually fall on May 8, three months earlier.
Consumption is only part of the story. The Earth’s ability to renew natural resources is affected not just by how quickly we use the resources we have, but by the Earth’s ability to replace those resources.
The global equation also has to take into consideration such factors as soil erosion, water shortages and that oft-mentioned bugaboo climate change, which some prominent thinkers — if “think” is the right word here— and national leaders continue to insist is a Chinese hoax.
(Ironically, China has been one of the leaders of late in battling climate change and renewing the environment, in part because China’s environmental record of the 1990s’ period of economic growth has proven to be catastrophic, as well as unsustainable, from the air people breath to the soil they use to grow food, to the rivers and waterways that irrigate those agricultural fields.)
China today is doing its level best to prove that no problem is insurmountable, not even environmental destruction.
Of course, having an obstreperous, obstructionist, militantly ignorant political administration in charge of the U.S., by far the world’s most voracious consumer of natural resources, isn’t going to help the big picture, but it’s interesting that China is among the players looking to lead rather than follow on climate change. It can’t all be left to Denmark, Sweden and the E.U.
Our carbon footprint is inextricably tied to energy efficiency. Clean energy is not the solution, the experts say, but it’s a start. (Tearing up the Paris Agreement and doubling down on fossil fuel is just nuts, of course, but there you have it: We live in the world, and Trump’s world is thus.)
One of the problems in getting climate deniers to see the big picture is our political leaders’ seeming inability to think in terms of the long-range future. Perhaps it’s something hard-wired into our DNA since the time of the caver, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of the post-industrial age of computers and artificial intelligence, but as human beings we seem to have a fundamental inability to recognize incremental changes. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug. 2nd; this year it is just one day earlier. What difference, a doubter might well ask, does a single day make in the grand scheme of things?
It’s the same argument — used by many, including people who should know better — that asks how a worldwide temperature change of just one or two degrees Celsius could possibly make a difference to the world’s climate — but that’s not how science, or compound interest for that matter, works.
Hundreds of people may have died in wildfires this summer all the way from Greece to Northern California, and countless more may have perished in catastrophic floods in Japan and Laos, or died of heat exhaustion in southern Quebec, but as long as we still have food in the refrigerator, how can there possibly be a looming food crisis?
The Global Footprint Network equates the situation to planning the family budget. We’re leveraging the Earth’s future resources — putting it on the credit card, in other words — to live well in the present, all the while digging a deeper hole of ecological debt.
Planet Earth isn’t the World Bank, though. Resources are finite. Tapping into an imaginary overdraft, based on human ingenuity and creative ideas — “scientists will get us out of it somehow; they always do” — is a hell of a gamble to take when the very future of humanity is at stake.
We’re gobbling up our natural resources at a faster rate than the Earth can replenish them, and that is a problem not even one of David Attenborough’s soul-stirring nature programs will be able to fix.
There are things we can do on a micro, small-picture level. Eat less beef. Reduce what we throw away. Find alternatives for plastic. Go all in on recycling, no matter what the complainers and detractors say. Use less energy. Cycle, don’t drive. Consume less, think more.
Don’t just think local — think global as well.