Photo: We only have one Earth, and we're overshooting its capacity

(Photo credit: Emil Athanasiou via Flickr [cropped])

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

August 2 was Earth Overshoot Day. Unlike Earth Day or Canada Day, it's not a time to celebrate. As the Earth Overshoot Day website explains, it marks the time when "we will have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year." That is the definition of unsustainable and means we're using up the biological capital that should be our children's legacy. We would require 1.7 Earths to meet our current annual demands sustainably.

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It doesn't have to be this way. "Our planet is finite, but human possibilities are not. Living within the means of one planet is technologically possible, financially beneficial, and our only chance for a prosperous future," says Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of the Global Footprint Network, an international research organization that uses UN statistics and other sources to calculate when overshoot day falls every year. This year marks the earliest overshoot date yet.

(Wackernagel was a student of University of British Columbia ecologist William Rees. They popularized the footprint concept in their 1996 book, Our Ecological Footprint. Andrew Simms of the U.K.'s New Economics Foundation conceived Earth Overshoot Day, partnering with the Global Footprint Network in 2006 on the first campaign, and with conservation organization WWF starting in 2007.)

According to the website, overfishing, overharvesting forests and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural sinks like forests can sequester are among the ways we overshoot Earth's capacity. The consequences are serious. "Impacts of ecological overspending are apparent already in soil erosion, desertification, reduced cropland productivity, overgrazing, deforestation, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse and increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere," it notes. "Natural capital constraints also pose a threat to economic performance and economic stability."

Climate change is the most serious result. The Global Footprint Network says our carbon footprint makes up 60 per cent of our total ecological footprint, and it's increasing rapidly. Basing its calculations on "the land area required to sequester carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production", the network says our carbon footprint has more than doubled since 1970.

The network also offers a mobile-friendly personal footprint calculator. Be warned: If you live in North America, your footprint will likely be much higher than 1.7 Earths, no matter how ecologically aware you consider yourself. We use far more energy and other res"":https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/overshoot-dayources than people in many parts of the world.

The site includes a range of solutions in four areas: food, cities, population and energy. In North America, reducing the carbon footprint by using less energy — especially fossil fuels — is major, but so is changing food habits. Food demand makes up 26 per cent of the global footprint. Because raising animals for food requires far more resources and creates more emissions than growing plants, reducing the amount of meat and animal products we eat decreases our footprint. According to Oregon State University researchers, if Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. could meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions goals, even if the country did little else and if people continued to eat other animal products.

Food waste is another major problem. One-third of the food produced worldwide is wasted or lost — as much as 40 per cent in the U.S.

Population is an obvious concern. More people require more space and resources. Strategies to stabilize population growth also have social benefits. "Educating girls and providing access to safe, affordable, and effective family planning" and "empowering women" are essential to reducing population growth and result in better economic development and health outcomes.

Because humans are increasingly urban dwellers — with 70 to 80 per cent expected to live in cities by 2050 — things like "energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, compact cities, and effective options for people-powered and public transportation" are crucial to reducing our footprint.

Some have criticized the Earth overshoot concept, arguing it's not accurate or that it underestimates resource overuse. Wackernagel admits the calculations are only as good as the available data, but argues that it remains a useful way to put our unsustainable ways in perspective.

Demanding constant economic growth on a finite planet with limited ability to renew resources is a recipe for overshoot. We can and must do more to reduce our growing impact on the only home we have.

August 10, 2017
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2017/08/we-only-have-one-earth-and-were-overshooting-its-capacity/

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3 Comments

Sep 17, 2017
5:44 AM

The politicians in western industrialized countries are primarily in support of global agendas and not that of the country they were voted to represent. This is commonly used as their best excuse to do nothing or to attempt nothing radical in change to matters that demand independent urgency of action , it is the international economic system by central banks controlling the global politics of all individual nation interests. As long as we are betting on mainstream puppets we will be met by primates and primitive rhetoric and whitewash.

Aug 29, 2017
7:11 AM

I was lucky enough to meet and speak with Robert Bateman on Saltspring Island on August the 19th of this year. We spoke for approx. half an hour and I explained to him a painting idea I had and he agreed it would be a good idea. I would like to do three panels. The first is a lush and green forest..the second would be clear cut areas with stumpage and dead burnt trees and the .. third one A family out on a picnic, but the ground around them is bare and cracked from drought not a tree in site and no creek or lake either.It speaks volums of our childrens children not even knowing what a forest looks like or nature in general. What I forgot to ask him is how and where do I get these paintings out to the World.

Aug 10, 2017
8:12 PM

This planet we live on is incredibly beautiful and amazingly bountiful. We must change our habits and our attitudes to protect our only home while we have time. Is homo aspens actually so stupid that we would ruin our home rather than make the changes needed to save it?

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