Aug. 1 marks Earth Overshoot Day 2018, the point in our calendars when we tip into consuming more natural resources than the planet can regenerate in a year.
Global Footprint Network, an international nonprofit that calculates how we are managing ― or failing to manage ― the world’s resources, says that in the first seven months of 2018 we devoured a year’s worth of resources, such as water and fibers like cotton, to produce everything from the food on our plates to the clothes we’re wearing and the gas in our cars.
This year sees the earliest Earth Overshoot Day since the 1970s, when humanity’s resource consumption first started to exceed what the planet could renew in a year.
“At the moment, we’re able to live in this ecological debt by using up the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present ― in other words, we’re running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of Global Footprint Network, told HuffPost. “It might work for now, but as we dig ourselves deeper into debt it will eventually all fall apart.”
Wackernagel said he is certain that humanity will move out of overshoot. “The question,” he said, “is whether we do so by design or by disaster.”
There’s a human cost to all of this, said Michael O’Heaney, executive director of environmental campaign group The Story of Stuff.
“When we don’t live in harmony with the Earth’s ability to sustain itself, people get hurt ― you see ecosystem collapse in places primarily impacting poor people, people in the global south,” O’Heaney said.
Yet it’s some of the wealthiest countries that are creating the most ecological debt. If the world’s population lived like the U.S. currently does we would need five planets to sustain consumption levels, according to Global Footprint Network’s data. In contrast, if the world lived like India we would require only 0.7 of a planet to maintain annual resource demands.
Globally, we’re using up nature 1.7 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate. In other words, our planet relies on 1.7 planets worth of resources.
Global Footprint Network has outlined several possible ways to address ecological overshoot, from cutting car use in half and reducing the intensity of our diets (for example by eating less meat), to designing compact, energy-efficient cities.
“This is not an individual consumer problem,” said O’Heaney. “There’s a systemic problem here ― we have a system that chews up resources, creates products using those resources, spits them out and then makes them so that they’re not durable, makes them so that people throw them away. Take the example of bottled water. We all did fine without water in plastic bottles 25 years ago.”
As corporations have convinced us that we need things like bottled water, governments have been doing an increasingly bad job of protecting our natural resources, O’Heaney said.
Ultimately, he said, the solution lies in transitioning away from the “dinosaur economy” that relies on rampant consumption of resources and is powered by fossil fuels, and instead pushing for economies that use sustainable materials and run on renewables.
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