Humans are depleting food, water, land, and wood at a rate that cannot be sustained, going through a year’s worth of resources in just 212 days, according to a new study.
An annual assessment of consumption from the Global Footprint Network has set this year’s Earth Overshoot Day — the date at which the world begins using more resources than nature can regenerate in the same year — at August 1, two days earlier than last year and the earliest ever, The Guardian reports.
In 1970, Earth Overshoot Day fell on December 29, meaning that the consumption of resources was only slightly out of balance with how quickly those resources could be regenerated. It’s been a steady retreat ever since with only a few reprieves, including early in 1980s and again during the recession of 2008 when economic conditions favored a slowdown.
It would take 1.7 Earths to sustain humanity’s current rate of consumption, the organization said. Overharvesting forests, overfishing, and sending more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural ecosystems can absorb all contribute to the trend.
“Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet,” Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and co-founder of Global Footprint Network, said in a press release. “We are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present. Like any Ponzi scheme, this works for some time. But as nations, companies, or households dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, they eventually fall apart.”
Digging into the numbers finds dramatically different rates of consumption around the globe. The organization also posts “Country Overshoot Days,” the date on which Earth Overshoot Day would occur if the whole planet used resources at the rate of a particular country. Vietnam and Jamaica are the only two countries listed whose overshoot days occur in December, making them the thriftiest countries on the planet. Qatar was first to hit the milestone, on February 9, followed by Luxembourg (February 19), United Arab Emirates (March 4), and the U.S. (March 15).
If you want to go further, the Global Footprint Network provides a calculator letting you determine your own ecological footprint. It develops a personal overshoot day based on such things as what you eat, the type of house you live in, and travel habits. The calculator, which has been used by more than 13 million people, is available in four languages.
What can reverse the trend
The Global Footprint Network each year calculates the number of days that the Earth’s biocapacity is able to accommodate humanity’s ecological footprint. The rest of the year is considered global overshoot. The Earth went into overshoot in the early 1970s, but the rate at which Overshoot Day is moving up on the calendar is slowing down. For the last five years, it’s been an average of one day per year, compared with an average of three days a year in the early 1970s.
The group estimates that 60% of humanity’s total ecological footprint is the carbon footprint, which represents the land area needed to sequester carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel and from cement production.
In addition to issuing warnings about the rate of consumption, the organization also manages a tandem effort called #MoveTheDate, which promotes a number of behavioral changes that would reverse the trend. They include:
- Replacing 50% of current meat consumption with a vegetarian diet. That would push Overshoot Day ahead by five days.
- Reducing the carbon component of the global ecological footprint by 50% (93 days).
- Reducing the amount of driving globally by 50% with a concurrent increase in the use of public transportation (12 days).
- Applying off-the-shelf, commercially available technologies to lower the impact of
buildings, industrial processes, and the production of electricity (21 days, without any loss of human comfort or economic productivity).
- Reducing food waste by 50% worldwide (11 days). The organization estimates that 40% of food in the U.S. goes to waste, the equivalent of the total ecological footprint of Peru and Belgium combined.
- Reducing family size by one child in every other family (30 days by 2050).
To mark this year’s Earth Overshoot Day, the Global Footprint Network said it would run a message on two screens in New York City’s Times Square twice an hour for two weeks.