Humanity’s Heavy Footprint on Mother Earth

By David L. Brown

Using United Nations statistics available back to 1961, a U.S. think tank called the Global Footprint Network (GFN) has calculated the impact of humanity on the resources of the Earth. Now each year the organization calculates the Ecological Footprint of the human race — its demand on cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries — and compares that to global biocapacity, or the ability of these vital ecosystems to generate resources and absorb wastes. The estimate for that first year 45 years ago for which figures were available, the “footprint” amounted to about 40 percent of the Earth’s ability to sustain humanity.

But that comfortable situation has changed dramatically in just a few decades, and continues to look more ominous with each passing year. Nineteen years ago GFN tells us that we reached the first “World Overshoot Day,” determined by the calculation that as of December 19 of that year we had used up all of the Earth’s resources necessary to support humanity for 1987. The remaining 12 days were indicative of “overshoot,” a term used by ecologists to describe the situation when a population of living creatures has grown to a level beyond which it can no longer be sustained by its environment (for example, a population of deer on an isolated island). In this case, the term overshoot is being used to describe the position of humanity relative to the entire planet. (For more on this, see my article “Overshoot-and-Collapse: A Model for Our Future?” posted here on August 6, 2006).

Since then things have just gotten worse, and the organization recently announced that by their calculations October 9, 2006 was the date by which we had used up all the available resources of the Earth for this year. That leaves us with almost three months to live on our environmental “credit card,” an account that is becoming stretched quite thin and may be in danger of being cancelled.

Just to drive home the point, here is a graph that shows the ‘Footprint” calculated by GFN since 1961 and the extent to which we are now overshooting the sustainable environment:

overshootgraph06.jpg
In the year 1961 I graduated from college, and in my brief adult lifetime (not that much unlike that of a mayfly if compared to the long and relatively stable two billion year history of life on Earth) it is difficult to conceive that humanity has gone from dominating about 40 percent of the vast resources of our planet, to using nearly a third more than the Earth is capable of yielding. To put it a different way, it now takes the Earth more than 15 months to replace what we use each year. A sad situation indeed.

The GFN website describes the situation in further detail (you can read it all here). Here iis how the process of calculating the overshoot is explained:

Overshoot has been called ‘the biggest issue you’ve never heard of.’ Yet despite its lack of publicity, its causes and effects are as simple as they are significant. In any given year, if trees are cut down faster than they grow back, then forests become smaller than the year before. If more fish are caught each year than spawn, there will be fewer fish in the sea. The consequences of our accumulating ecological debt also include global climate change, species extinction, insecure energy supplies, water shortages, and crop failure.

We currently maintain this overshoot by liquidating the planet’s natural resources. For example we can cut trees faster than they re-grow, and catch fish at a rate faster than they repopulate. While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to the depletion of resources on which our economy depends.

Overshoot is like ecological overspending. Just as any business that does not keep financial books will go bankrupt over time, we must document whether we’re living within our ecological budget or running an ecological deficit that will eventually deplete our renewable assets.

Of course we always want to look for a way to duck bad news. Reporting on the announcement of Global Overshoot Day, the magazine New Scientist (“World Slips Further into the “Eco-red,” 14 October, 2006, pg. 7) stated:

But not everyone is pessimistic. The European Centre for International Political Economy thinks that the GFN analyses dwell on the global picture but ignore the potential for solutions. For example, says CIPE director Julian Morris, forests in richer countries tend to be managed sustainably. “By being totally negative, [GFN] detracts from solutions that are out there.”

Well, yes, but it is all too easy to mistake the courage and common sense to face reality for pointless pessimism. There is a favorite saying of mine by the late Clare Boothe Luce: “The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist is usually better informed.” And in fact GFN recognizes that “continued overshoot is not inevitable. The Ecological Footprint provides a systematic resource accounting tool that can help us plan for a world in which we all live well, within the means of our one planet.”

Their website explains further how they are working to make the Environmental Footprint a tool through which governments can move toward sustainability:

Global Footprint Network is committed to fostering a world where all people have the opportunity to live satisfying lives within the means of Earth’s ecological capacity. We are dedicated to advancing the scientific rigor and practical application of the Ecological Footprint, a tool that quantifies human demand on nature, and nature’s capacity to meet these demands. Created in 1993 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, the Ecological Footprint is now in wide use by governments, communities, and businesses to monitor current ecological resource balances and to plan for the future.

Global Footprint Network’s vision is to make the Ecological Footprint as prominent a metric as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 2015, through its flagship Ten In Ten Campaign, Global Footprint Network aims to have ten countries managing their ecological wealth in the same way they manage their finances.

Since its founding in 2003, GFN has made significant progress. There are now 22 countries that are likely to be the early adopters of the Ecological Footprint, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom are working with Global Footprint Network. In addition, more than 70 organizations, spanning six continents, have become formal Global Footprint Network partners.

The lesson here is that pessimists don’t have to be defeatists. When faced with the kind of looming crisis that hangs over the world and becomes more threatening each day, nobody but an idiot could be complacent. Hats off to those who are bold enough to recognize the problems and face them square on.

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