On July 29, we cross an alarming threshold. This date marks Earth Overshoot Day, the point each year at which humanity starts to consume the world’s natural resources faster than they can be replenished.
It’s taken us only 209 days to burn through a year’s worth of resources — everything from food and timber to land and carbon. We are using up nature 1.75 times faster than they can be replenished. To do this sustainably, we would need the resources of 1.75 Earths.
These latest figures come from Global Footprint Network, an international nonprofit that calculates our annual ecological budget and the date at which we exceed it. Once we bust through this budget, we start devouring resources at an unsustainable rate.
“It’s a pyramid scheme,” said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of Global Footprint Network. “It depends on using more and more from the future to pay for the present.”
It’s like being in financial debt, only much harder to recover. “There’s nothing to kickstart the economy if we overuse our resources,” he said, “because every economic activity depends on natural capital, and without that, it’s not going to work.”
The burden of this ecological debt is getting heavier. We started overconsuming resources back in the 1970s, and since then it’s gotten progressively worse. Over the last 20 years, Earth Overshoot Day has crept forward by more than two months. And this year, it falls on the earliest date yet.
Forests are being felled at an alarming rate to provide timber and clear land for agriculture — two football fields’ worth of Amazon rainforest were cleared every minute in May. We are overexploiting water resources for industry and agriculture, and to provide drinking water for ever-expanding cities. And our addiction to fossil fuels means we are producing carbon emissions at levels that will push us further into dangerous temperature rises.
As with financial debt, we can only avoid the consequences for so long. The impact is already becoming frighteningly clear. Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more destructive. Cities around the world, from Cape Town to Chennai, are running out of water supplies, and a landmark U.N. biodiversity report published in May said up to 1 million species could go extinct thanks to human actions.
While the consequences are likely to affect poorer nations more starkly, it’s the populations of richer nations that live further beyond their means, according to the Global Footprint Network. If everyone lived like people in the United States, for example, we would need five Earths. If we all consumed resources at the same rate as people in India, we would only need seven-tenths of a planet to meet our demands.
It’s an untenable situation, and one that will not continue indefinitely, Wackernagel said. Whether it stops through disaster or by design is up to us.
Wackernagel blames the current inaction on the failure of politicians and economists to understand that the economy depends on, and is inextricably linked to, natural resources. Instead, the tendency is to treat environmental considerations as secondary, rather than fundamental to the economy’s ability to survive. But the costs of ignoring them will be huge, he said.
“So as long as, for example in the United States, the Trump government doesn’t think climate action is a great investment for the United States, they will do anything they can to avoid the topic,” he said.
Global Footprint Network has launched a campaign to end Earth Overshoot Day for good, aiming to conserve enough resources to move the date later by five days each year — so that by 2050, we can live within the resources of one Earth.
The organization has identified several areas in which we can reduce consumption: more efficient and low-carbon city design; moving away from fossil fuels, which make up the biggest share of our overall footprint; fixing the broken food system; and protecting nature through regenerative agriculture and large-scale conservation.
Overpopulation is also a key pressure point, Wackernagel said, adding that one of the best solutions is to provide women and girls with the same educational and economic opportunities offered to men.
“It’s not about sacrifice,” Wackernagel said. “It’s all about investing in a future where our next generation, our children, can thrive. There are tons of solutions possible with very high impact. Again, the question is, do we want them?”
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