Earth uses a year of resources in seven months

Timber: According to UN figures, 18 million acres of forest are lost every year. © Greenpeace

How can we push back Earth Overshoot Day? As of today, humans have used more resources in 2018 than the Earth can renew in a year. Environmental disaster looms if the trend is not reversed.

It took just 212 days. A whole year’s worth of food, carbon, water, fibre, land and timber, devoured by a human race insatiably consuming the Earth’s resources.

According to a new study, August 1 marks Earth Overshoot Day — the day when humans have used all the resources the Earth is able to replenish in a year.

We would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to maintain the current level of consumption, with deforestation, intensive farming, fossil-fuel burning, mining and overfishing demanding more than the planet can sustainably produce.

What’s more, 2018 is the quickest we have ever reached the mark. In 1970, Earth Overshoot Day was declared on December 29; since then it has steadily crept forward. Next year could see the planet’s resource budget busted as early as July.

If this trend continues, the consequences could be disastrous. “We are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present,” explains Mathis Wackernagel. “This works for some time. But as nations, companies, or households dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, they eventually fall apart.”

However, we have the power to change things. Research shows that replacing 50% of meat consumption with a vegetarian diet would push the overshoot day back by five days. And if humanity cut its carbon emissions by half the date would be pushed back by three months.

The biggest changes would need to come from the most developed countries, in which people enjoy high-consumption lifestyles. For example, if everyone consumed as much as the average American, humanity would need five Earths.

Whether the international effort required will actually happen remains to be seen. Last year, President Donald Trump sensationally withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. What’s more, as large nations like India and China grow more prosperous, demands on the Earth’s resources are likely to increase.

How can we push back Earth Overshoot Day?

In the red

Governments must take the lead, some argue. The biggest impact will come from rich nations enforcing carbon-reducing legislation — whether through taxes, regulations or subsidies. Where possible, developing nations must grow in sustainable ways too. Finally, all this must be accompanied by investment in research and renewable energy to help scientists develop green technologies.

We all have a role to play, others respond. Politicians will only act if they feel pressure to do so. Anyone who cares about the planet must make the environmental message heard. What’s more, from reducing meat consumption to using eco-friendly transportation, there are ways we can all reduce our own ecological footprints.

You Decide

  1. Is environmental destruction mankind’s most pressing issue?
  2. How likely is it that Earth Overshoot Day will be reversed?

Activities

  1. Calculate your own Ecological Footprint by following the first link under Become An Expert. Is it higher or lower than you expected? Why do you think your score is as high or low as it is?
  2. Watch the two videos in Become An Expert — they explain what a Ecological Footprint is and how Earth Overshoot Day is calculated. List all the resources that contribute to humanity’s Ecological Footprint. For each item, think of ways for an individual to reduce their consumption of that resource. Do you think individual actions are strong enough to make a difference?

Some People Say...

“Practically every environmental problem we have can be traced to our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Dennis Weaver

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
August 1 is the earliest that Earth Overshoot Day has ever occurred. However, there have been some occasions when the date was moved back. For example, the fall in consumption following the financial crisis in 2007-08 saw it pushed back by five days. Qatar is currently the nation with the highest Ecological Footprint, its citizens consuming 9.2 times Earth’s biocapacity.
What do we not know?
How future demographic and economic changes will impact mankind’s Ecological Footprint. The United Nations (UN) predicts that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with Africa being the fastest growing region.

Word Watch

Devoured
Human consumption of natural resources is known as an Ecological Footprint. This expressed as the amount of land needed to satisfy the use of resources, and can be applied to individuals as well as entire countries.
Study
Conducted by Global Footprint Network. Researchers have found an overshoot in resource consumption every year since 1970.
Mathis Wackernagel
Swiss-born sustainability advocate, and chief executive and co-founder of Global Footprint Network.
Carbon emissions
Carbon emissions make up around 60% of humanity’s Ecological Footprint.
Paris Climate Agreement
Signed in 2015 by 195 countries. Signatories commit to keeping the rise of average global temperatures to “well below” 2C.
India and China
For more on these two countries, see The Economist link in Become An Expert.
Subsidies
An amount of money granted by a country or a public body to help an industry or business keep the price of a commodity low.