photo: Dmytri Kleiner via flickr
Here is the most succinct symbol of how humanity is using resources beyond the capacity of the planet to sustainable regenerate them, and is only increasing to do so: Global Footprint Network tells us that August 21, 2010 is Earth Overshoot Day--every single thing we collectively do past this date depletes environmental capital, puts us into ecological debt.
all charts: Global Footprint Network
For the past two years Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to occur about one month later in the year--with humanity calculated to use 140% of the resources Earth can generate annually. In 2010, that figure is now up to 150%. In other words, it now takes eighteen months to regenerate the resources we collectively consume in one year.
Global Footprint Network explains it all thusly:
The fact that we are using (or "spending" natural capital) faster than it can replenish is similar to having expenditures that continually exceed income. In planetary terms, the results of our ecological overspending are becoming more clear by the day. Climate change - a result of carbon being emitted faster than it can be reabsorbed by the forests and seas - is the most obvious and arguably pressing result. But there are others as well: shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse and freshwater stress to name a few.
The jump from previous calculations isn't due to a marked increase in consumption from 2008 and 2009, but in more accurate calculations, Global Footprint Network says. Mathias Wackernagel, GFN president, notes, "We would expect our estimates of overshoot to be, if anything, conservative."
Carbon Emissions Fastest Growing Portion of Ecological Footprint
As the graphic above shows, the segment of ecological footprint growing most quickly (and this is using 2006 stats) is carbon footprint. Since 1970, carbon footprint has more than doubled, increasing more than three times as quickly as the next-fastest growing segment, built-up land.
In most simple terms, increasing carbon footprint is the result of increased energy use generated from fossil fuels, increased deforestation removing carbon storage potential and releasing stored carbon, changes in diet across the world towards more meat-eating than was historically the norm, more motorized transport powered by fossil fuels.
We Can All Consume Resources Like the Chinese
There are marked discrepancies between nations and how many resources they consume. While the world average may be 1.4 planets, if everyone consumed resources like the average US resident we'd need five planets; if we all adopted the consumption habits of UK residents we'd still need 3.4 planets.
Then, frankly, comes the wall which consumer culture and all economics based upon assumed continued economic expansion runs into at full speed: In order to keep human activity within a scale that is ecological sustainable at current population levels, we all need to consume resources like we were residents of China.
The good news in that is that for residents of India, as well as a great number of developing nations not including in the chart, there is room for a good deal more resource consumption--and the genuine improvements in standard of living that accompany them, when you've currently got so little.
The bad news should be obvious. While energy efficiency, efficiency in manufacturing, and other technological changes can reduce the amount of resources a consumerism-based economy requires to keep functioning, at current population levels (and expanding, at least for the next 30-40 years) a sustainable and equitable distribution of natural resources means what is considered a good goal ought not to be what the US, the EU, Japan or other 'developed' nations do in 2010, but China--from the perspective of resource consumption at least.
Both Personal & Collective Action Needed to Address Ecological Overshoot
Global Footprint Network notes a number of ways we can help begin and ease the transition. Wackernagel notes, "Much of the technology we have to begin address this problem is available and it is open source. Things like compact urban design, energy-efficient housing, ecological tax reform, removal of resource subsidies, safe and affordable family planning, bicycles, low-meat diets, and life-cycle costing."
I'd add an important addition to that: Adjusting expectations of what is considered a normal level of resource consumption in the developed world. Radically reassessing how much stuff we believe is required for our happiness. Rejiggering what we believe to be needs and not just wants.
More on Ecological Footprint:
Your Ecological Footprint: Defining, Calculating and Reducing Your Environmental Footprint
Foodprint: The Surprising Ecological Footprint of a Little Meat
Energy Vacation - The Zen of a Reduced Ecological Footprint