Aug 16, 2015 by


An inventor of the ‘ecological footprint’ says humanity’s demands have shot far beyond the planet’s capacity to meet them—but we already know how to dial them back.

Crowded street near a train station in China’s southern city of Guangzhou on Feb. 1, 2008. (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Emily J. Gertz is TakePart’s associate editor for environment and wildlife.


For 45 years, humanity has been drawing down on the planet’s natural resources—including groundwater, fertile soil, and carbon storage in forests, oceans, and the atmosphere—faster than they can replenish themselves.

The results today include spiking food prices and diminishing water supplies worldwide, more costly and extreme weather events, and violent social conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, said Mathis Wackernagel, a cocreator of the “ecological footprint” method for measuring humanity’s demand on the environment.

Wackernagel’s organization, the Global Footprint Network, declared Aug. 13 as the day this year when humanity overshot the planet’s surplus of natural resources and began dipping into the principal supply. In 1970, according to the group, that day came on Dec. 23.

Humanity as a whole already has the technological resources and inventiveness it needs to dial back the demands—considerably, although “it will take sweat, and it won’t be a quick turn around,” he said. One important accounting will come in December, when world leaders gather in Paris to try and finalize a new global deal to curb climate change.

If demand—including fossil fuel–based energy use—continues to grow at present rates, however, by 2030 this “overshoot day” will arrive on June 28, according to GFN.

The group calculates the day each year by dividing the planet’s annual regenerated resources, which it calls “biocapacity,” by how much demand humanity is putting on those resources and then multiplying the resulting ratio by 365. “The date is a reflection of the proportion we overshoot every day, using more than ecosystems regenerate,” Wackernagel said, adding that at current rates of population growth and resource use, it would take 1.62 Earths to supply humanity’s needs for a full year without running a deficit.

“The ATM does not let you take out more money than you put in” the bank, said Wackernagel. “That’s why we invented bookkeeping, to keep track of not spending more than we take in. With natural resources, you can do the same sort of accounting, and realize that while we can take out more than we put in, we can’t do it forever.”
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While making daily lifestyle changes is part of the solution, scattered personal actions are not going to fill the overshoot gap. “We need to sweat the big stuff,” he said, and not expect to simply ride out the problem by way of wealth alone. “Some think we can fix this with money,” said Wackernagel. “Many people who currently plan for the economy think overshoot is a minor risk compared to inflation, or sluggish growth.

“But it’s one of the fundamental risks: How much resources do we have available?”

The four key arenas for reducing overshoot, according to Wackernagel, are cities, energy, population, and food.

1. Cities

More than half the world’s population now live in cities, which are also the leading sources of greenhouse gas pollution worldwide. So it will be key to create or redesign cities that are more compact; provide easy access to mass transit, walking, or cycling routes between homes and workplaces; and use advanced technologies (such as LED lights) as well as classic measures (such as insulation) to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. “All this is becoming more valuable,” said Wackernagel. “Homes that use less resources will gain in value, whether you’re renting or buying.”

2. Energy

The world needs to make a much faster transition from coal-fired power to renewable resources, said Wackernagel, than most nations are doing. Coal-fired power creates most of the carbon dioxide pollution that is driving climate change. Wackernagel’s group has calculated that if global carbon emissions were lowered by at least 30 percent in the next 15 years, the planet’s overshoot day would jump nearly a month ahead, to Sept. 16, 2030.

3. Population

Population growth is a “slow but steady driver” of resource overshoot, said Wackernagel. Providing girls and women worldwide with the education, economic, and health resources they need to prosper is a key part of slowing that down, he said, and making “more planet per person available.”

It is unlikely that population growth can be stemmed entirely, according to a report last year from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

4. Food

“Animals are an important part of agriculture,” said Wackernagel, “but the level of animal product consumption is too high currently, and not sustainable.” Livestock raised for meat and dairy account for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Eating lower on the food chain, less processed and more in season locally, typically makes less demands on nature,” he said, evoking the advice of food system reform evangelist Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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