Earth now in overdraft


Today is the first day that the Earth has reached a level of resource demand that exceeds what nature can sustainably support for this year.


Credit: iStockphoto

Earth now in overdraft

Credit: Global Footprint Network

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Yesterday, 27 September, was Earth Overshoot Day 2011; the day the Earth reached a level of resource demand that exceeds what nature can sustainably support for this year.

In just over nine months, the capacity for nature to cope with humanity has been exhausted for the year, moving into the ecological equivalent of overdraft. "That's like spending your annual salary three months before the year is over, and eating into savings year after year. Pretty soon, you run out of savings," said Global Footprint Network President Dr. Mathis Wackernagel.

This measurement is calculated every year by the Global Footprint Network, on a concept devised by UK-based new economics foundation.

While it is not possible to determine conclusively that yesterday was the exact moment humanity burst their budget, the measurement is based on a simple equation that divides the biocapacity of the planet with our ecological footprint and multiplies it by the number of days in the year.

“[We measure] the amount of productive land and sea area it takes to produce all the resources we consume and absorb our carbon dioxide emissions,” Nicole Freeling from the Global Footprint Network told G.

“We compare this to biocapacity: nature’s capacity to generate resources and absorb the waste. Put simply, Earth Overshoot Day shows the day on which our total Ecological Footprint is equal to the biocapacity that nature can regenerate in that year.

This year, Earth Overshoot Day comes just as the UN estimates the world population will reach seven billion. "Providing good lives for the world's people is certainly possible – but it will not be possible using the resource-intensive development and growth models we have pursued in the past," said Global Footprint Network Director of Research and Standards Dr. Juan Carlos Morales.

When asked why global Overshoot Day is important, Freeling said that “we are borrowing from the future – at such steep interest rates as disappearing wildlife, growing food shortages, and a thickening blanket of CO2 that is contributing to costly and deadly climate change… Humanity is simply demanding more from nature than it is able to provide.”

“Just as with money, balancing the budget means managing both supply and demand. We can manage supply by maintaining natural resources as a source of ongoing wealth rather than liquidating them for fast cash. We can manage demand by transforming our systems of energy, housing, food, transportation and infrastructure, manufacturing, and so on, to be much less resource-intensive.”

Freeling does think it is possible to push such large-scale change, saying that action needs to first start with understanding the problem. Providing some sage advice for Australia on the brink of considering an introduction of a price on carbon pollution, she says that “acting to balance the budget on our use of nature is not a burden that must be shouldered by some for the good of the many; it is the single best thing any country can do to maintain its long-term stability and economic health… Long-term economic health depends upon sound management of ecological resources.”

She says that leaders need to “make decisions that are aligned with ecological reality”, and that by “taking the actions that will enable them to be best positioned facing the future, they also advance the global good”.

Dr. Wackernagel says that "if we are to maintain stable societies and good lives, we can no longer sustain this widening budget gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require".