The ecosystem, as we need it to be, has a certain equilibrium. We humans can choose to live at or below the balancing point or we can continue to live above the balancing point. As it stands right now, the human race uses up one year’s share of natural resources within less than eight months. If we look at our use of resources in monetary terms, the current pattern of use can be thought of as deficit spending.
Right now, we are in ecological debt. Environmental advocates have a name for the day of the year on which we have used up the year’s share of resources, “Earth Overshoot Day”. This year, that date was last Thursday.
As you probably already know, our annual resource consumption, in this regard, is slipping into ecological deficit earlier each year. Ever since the beginning of this century, the shift has been dramatic. The date upon which we humans have used up all of our yearly share has moved from October of 2000 clear up to August 13, 2015. We have less “wiggle room” with each passing year.
One environmental advocacy organization, Global Footprint Network, calculates that at our present rate of consumption, it would require one-and-a-half planet Earths to provide the renewable natural resources we need to support civilization at its current level. The organization warned that people who procrastinate or deny that ecological debt exists place our long-term security at high risk.
Furthermore, the Earth Overshoot is only an average for the world at large. We must remember that more than 85% of us live in nations where the demands have already outstripped those countries’ resource bases.
If we look back through history, we discover that mankind has had a large debit balance and no deficit regarding our use of natural resources. For centuries and centuries we have utilized natural resources to build infrastructure like cities, sanitation systems, and roads. In the same span of time, civilizations, as a whole, had ample resources to feed and clothe the population. In other words, we could do whatever we wanted and our activity could readily be absorbed by natural processes. Civilization was sustainable.
As our population increased over time, we required more natural resources. This was exasperated by technological advancements that required ever more resource use. By the time we reached the mid 1970s we crossed the threshold from debit to debt. Humankind then began to demand more from nature than nature could recoup. We used more of nature’s bounty before the year had expired.
For generations, already, we have had to deal with overfishing from the world’s oceans. As certain species of edible fish become far fewer in various areas, the fishing industry was forced to take fish from different seas. Then as favorite fish species diminished altogether, less desireable species were netted for consumption.
This same effect is now happening with our forests and arable land. If we continue using renewables at the current rate, we will place future generations at high risk of survival. Of course this does not account for our use of non-renewables, like fossil fuels and minerals.
Thankfully, there are already millions of people working to offset and reverse the ecological deficit at various levels. There are sustainable textile cooperatives and organizations like the “Better Cotton Initiative” and “FLOCERT”, a worldwide certification and verification group that supports fair trade in such areas as cocoa, sugar, and cotton. There is also “The Forest Trust”, a non-profit that oversees sustainable lumber production.
We are only beginning to address our urgent ecological indebtedness or Earth Overshoot. The need to reverse our overshoot can be the trigger to create new types of industries and practices. A whole new mindset regarding cutting back of non-renewables along with better renewable sustainability will need to be formulated. All of these factors must be taken into account as we also address global climate change.
We have our work cut out for us.