This year, “Earth Overshoot Day” fell on August 8, based on measurements of each nation’s withdrawal of natural capital. From carbon sinks to fisheries, humanity has taken more from nature than it’s been able to reproduce. Quite simply, we’re in environmental debt.
Since the 1970s, our global “ecological footprint,” or impact on Earth’s ability to generate renewable resources, has widened. Without fail, the Global Footprint Network says, Earth Overshoot Day has fallen earlier every year—between one to three days, on average, over the last four decades. Last year, it coincided with August 15.
Renewable resources such as crops, forests, and fishing grounds, as infinite as they might seem, are only as productive as we allow them to be. An ecosystem’s usefulness, also known as its “biocapacity,” is fatally interconnected with our ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions. If these environments can’t absorb our carbon and waste, they’ll take longer to regenerate.
According to national footprint measurements for 2016, if the entire world behaved like Australia, it would take 5.4 Earths to meet its annual natural resource needs. Here in the United States, we’d need 4.8 planets to meet our requirements. And Brazil, which recently came under fire for its poor environmental policies, would need 1.8 Earths to fulfill its consumption demands.
Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund calculated that humanity’s ecological footprint in 2010 topped out at 18.1 billion global hectares, which is a common unit of measurement for comparing the productivity of one ecosystem to another. That year, however, Earth’s biocapacity was only 12 billion global hectares, meaning people used nearly 50 percent more natural resources than were able to be produced.
In that same report, climate scientists estimated that by 2030, more than two planets will be needed to support all of humanity if countries don’t become more sustainable.
An ecological footprint is, at its core, a supply and demand equation, and can theoretically be solved for a person, industry, community, and country. Yet, some researchers question whether this can, and should, be quantified at all.
One critic said the equation makes arbitrary assumptions about carbon emissions, national boundaries, and production levels, and “fails to satisfy simple economic principles.” Another author argued that a calculating a country’s ecological footprintdoesn’t offer meaningful information for shaping environmental policies. It’s even been suggested that placing such a high value on an ecosystem’s biocapacityultimately encourages agricultural monoculture, or the cultivation of a single resource in a given area.
The method’s most compelling criticism, however, is that it portrays smaller, rural populations as parasitic, consuming the resources of larger communities instead of producing their own. There’s a theory that if aliens were to visit our planet, they’d characterize our species as a lowly parasite, and not its most dominant lifeform. As perspective-bending as this may seem, even David Attenborough once referred to humans as “a plague on the Earth.”
Hopefully, instead of draining Earth of its life-giving sustenance, we’ll find a way to live sustainably. New climate policies, such as those outlined in the Paris Agreement, aim to make the fight against environmental demise a global one. Because if one thing’s for sure, it’s that soon, no one will be spared the effects of global warming.
“The good news is that it is possible with current technology, and financially advantageous with overall benefits exceeding costs,” said Mathis Wackernagel, co-founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network.
“The Paris climate agreement is the strongest statement yet about the need to reduce the carbon footprint drastically. Ultimately, collapse or stability is a choice.”