Report: Humanity Has Overshot The Earth’s Biocapacity

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"Report: Humanity Has Overshot The Earth’s Biocapacity"

A new report on China’s ecological footprint opens with some grim news for the planet as a whole: The demand humans place on the planet — in terms of land use, resource consumption, pollution, and so on — overshot the Earth’s threshold for sustaining that demand back in the early 1970s. Since then the gap has only grown wider.

The report measures that demand by “ecological footprint,” which takes into account the area people use to produce the renewable resources they consume, the area that’s taken up by infrastructure, and the area of forest needed to absorb CO2 emissions not absorbed by the ocean. The report then compared that to the Earth’s biocapacity, which measures the amount of area available to serve all those purposes.

Both factors are measured in units of global hectares (gha), which represent “the productive capacity of one hectare area of utilized land at global average biological productivity levels.” And as it turns out, humanity’s footprint now outpaces the planet’s total biocapacity to the point that it would take one and a half Earths to sustain our total level of consumption:

In 2008, the Earth’s total biocapacity was 12.0 billion gha, or 1.8 gha per person, while humanity’s Ecological Footprint was 18.2 billion gha, or 2.7 gha per person. This discrepancy means it would take 1.5 years for the Earth to fully regenerate the renewable resources that people used in one year, or in other words, we used the equivalent of 1.5 Earths to support our consumption.

Just as it is possible to withdraw money from a bank account more quickly than the interest that accrues, biocapacity can be reused more quickly than it regenerates. Eventually the resources – our natural capital, will be depleted just like running down reserves in a bank account. At present, people are often able to shift their sourcing when faced with local resource limitations. However, if consumption continues to increase as it has in the past decades, the planet as a whole will eventually run out of resources. Some ecosystems will collapse and cease to be productive even before the resource is fully depleted.

Between 1961 and 2008, population growth drove much of the increase in humanity’s global ecological footprint. But growth in footprint per capita was also a significant contributor to the rise, particularly in the developed western nations of the OECD and the up-and-coming countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Even though its population is significantly smaller, America’s per capita footprint far exceeds that of China, and actually ranked 6th out of 150 countries measured in the report. And as the report’s description suggests, the per capita footprint is amenable to reform: Shifting to renewable energy, upgrading to energy efficient infrastructure, smart land and water use, and a host of other changes can bring down a population’s per capita footprint while also protecting and respecting its quality of life.

Smart use of energy and resources could also help close the overshoot gap from the other side as well: As the graph shows, the global ecological footprint has essentially plateaued over the last few decades, while the Earth’s biocapacity has continued to drop. Which in turn brings up the limitations of how we currently measure human economic progress — even as global gross domestic product has climbed over the last four decades, global biocapacity has been in a continuous decline.

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44 Responses to Report: Humanity Has Overshot The Earth’s Biocapacity

  1. We have proliferated to the edge of the Petri dish (the planet), consumed nearly all the easily accessible agar-agar (the oil), and are choking on our own waste (CO2).

  2. Will Fox says:

    Capitalism is a Ponzi scheme – this is simply indisputable.

    We need a Resource-Based Economy (RBE).

    For anyone who hasn’t watched it, I strongly recommend Zeitgeist: Moving Forward. This is freely available in its entirety on YouTube –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9WVZddH9w

    The best and most intelligent documentary I’ve ever seen, by far.

    (an earlier Zeitgeist film — also by Peter Joseph — contains what some people view as conspiracy theories, but this later film I’ve linked to is far better and more rational).

    • Ric Merritt says:

      Well, yes, capitalism, at least as practiced to date, has some major sins to rectify, doesn’t it.

      Of course, looking at the gobsmackingly obvious evidence from the major non-capitalist industrial economies of the last century or two, they are all at least as destructive, and usually worse.

      So why grind that axe here? Please go away.

    • FPA von Dreger says:

      If you think that Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist docos are useful, have a look at Foster Gamble’s THRIVE film which is also free-to-see on the net at:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEV5AFFcZ-s

      The film starts out saying that “All facts presented in this film have been independently verified” since much of what is presented is still so ‘amazing and unbelievable’ to the ‘average good American citizen’. Yes, well, the truth is shocking.

      I just hope Foster’s got good bodyguards !

      Cheers !!

  3. It appears more and more like Kunstler is an optimist and he should be writing about this ClusterfuckPlanet.

    • Bill Goedecke says:

      Yes, absolutely, Kunstler is an optomist – he seems to think we can go back to the 19th century – although his comments are always about areas where there is plenty of water and with well-watered landscapes – I think he holds back on being too negative.

  4. Dave Person says:

    For those of us who work as ecologists and conservationists, this is old news. Years ago, ecologist David Pimentel suggested a sustainable human global carrying capacity at a standard of living comparable to western developed nations was about 1 billion. Ecosystems and their functions have already failed in many parts of the world. While climate scientists are the latest target of cornucopian ridicule, ecologists and environmental scientists have endured that animosity for a long, long time.

    dave

  5. Dano says:

    We know this already. This is the hundredth report stating the same thing.

    And the bulk of humanity will continue to do exactly what they were doing yesterday.

    Best,

    D

    • And it bears repeating. That’s how the deniers and the other right-wing regressives gain their edge. They keep the message up to tip the uncertain, and to keep their base strong. Their message is ambient. So fight fire with fire.

      Don’t defeat yourself. It’s not only about new facts. It’s also about the same facts gaining strength.

      • Dano says:

        This phenomenon is a basic fact of biology on earth. We are not some superbeing above and beyond biology and natural limits and physics. Our population explosion and resource consumption is a feature, not a bug.

        We can no more change our natures than fly like a bird to the moon.

        That is: the source of this overshoot is our increasing population and our consumption. Tell me how you are going to make 6+B people stop reproducing and eating and creating waste and wanting comfort and a few things to distract away from the harshness of human society? You’re not. Maybe we will figger it out after the reorganization. Our job is to make lasting patterns for those left after the flip into a new state.

        Best,

        D

        • John McCormick says:

          Dano, I give you ten stars, salute and thanks for your post. I have known your aka for many years on various blogs and came to recognize you as a wise one.

          This massive and mostly rambling discussion goes far beyond awakening Americans to the criminal element in the US House of Representative. It begs international dialogue way beyond what UNFCCC offers.

          We will figure this out because our hearts immediately pour out anguish when suffering and tragedy visit our young.

          Not sure about ‘after the reorganization’ (assuming the post swearing-in ceremony) but we have about 18 months to prove to ourselves we know the fate for our children. Unless we turn the international emissions ship 180 degrees there is no future.

          Listen folks: Start with the 2014 elections. Don’t sign petitions or join picket lines. Literally, elect your House of Representative candidate that signed a global warming mitigation pledge. Do it!

          Dano, give us more of your understanding, insite and wisdom. You are usually quiet but you are visiting regularly. Maybe a guest post is in order.

          Peace

          • Dano says:

            Good to see you voice as well, John, thank you.

            What I mean by ‘reorganization’ is the new state after the ecosystem flip, here.

            Best,

            D

        • Merrelyn Emery says:

          It’s the rate of reproduction: e.g. educated women have limited their children, in some cases below replacement rates, and ancient cultures always limited their populations to the carrying capacity of the land.

          Consumption: It’s the rate of consumption and what you eat and otherwise consume – many examples from around the world.

          Waste: excessive waste is a very recent phenomenon and totally unnecesary -stop producing unrecyclable waste and use the rest to refertilize the planet.

          The harshness of human society: Again, a recent phenomenom (about 250 years). There are still pockets of culture where humams as equals make collective decisions in the interests of the whole including the land. It is a pleasure to live in them. They organize themselves on the second design principle (cooperation), not the first which produces inequality and its consequences of self interest and disregard of others which is what you know.

          Your ‘reorganization’? I hope it means a change of design principle to the old second one that has served us and the planet well, ME

        • prokaryotes says:

          The problem is that with per capita resource management, sustainable tech and developments, earth could hold much more people.

          Then the fact that maybe 10% create most pollution and use up most of the resources. However, without education, technology transfer and the expertise most developing countries/cultures will grow in the same fashion and eat up everything.

        • Superman1 says:

          Dano,

          You are right on target. While it may be theoretically possible to avoid the impending climate catastrophe technically (with a combination of essentially zero fossil fuel use, accelerated reforestation, and geoengineering that removes CO2 from the atmosphere), from a realistic perspective there is no way this will happen. The positive posts on this blog are ‘denial’ of the worst type.

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            I can’t find any ‘positive’ posts. If you mean that some have a more thoughtful and nuanced view of the coming catastrophe than you, you are right, ME

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          The problem is the insatiable greed of the tiny capitalist elite, not the basic consumption of the masses of poor. We must confiscate the larcenously acquired trillions of the parasites, and distribute it equitably. Any other path is, obviously, suicidal.

          • Superman1 says:

            Mulga,

            There are really three groups. The largest is the masses of the poor at the bottom, who have a low resource footprint, but who strive to break their chains and acquire a larger resource footprint. Then, there is a moderate size group mainly in the developed nations and increasing in the developing nations that are using a large resource footprint in their daily lives. Finally, there is the small group of extremely wealthy at the top who use massive amounts of resources in their daily lives and promote the increasing use of resources for everyone else (aka consumption).

            Even if this small controlling group were to disappear, the moderate-sized group is so addicted to consumption and fossil fuels that the problem would remain. ‘We’ are the problem, not the drug cartels or their fossil energy equivalents.

  6. T Wood says:

    The carrying capacity of the Earth has never exceeded about 1.5 billion humans. We’ve TEMPORARILY exceeded that by using petro-chemicals for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, to artificiality force crop yields higher. The result is that at least 5.5 billion of us are now effectively eating “oil.” As the oil runs out, the population will fall (painfully). Hopefully we will not have damaged the soil beyond the point of recovery, and we will still be able to feed 1 to 1.5 billion of us.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      There won’t be one billion left because such mass extermination will inevitably lead to thermo-nuclear war.

    • James W. Crissman says:

      The carrying capacity of an earth 5-10 degrees warmer won’t be the same. There is precious little top soil at the latitudes where the climate might allow agriculture. But I’m looking forward to my first copy of Yukon Farm Journal.

  7. Note that U.S. population growth is twice that of China’s
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_growth_rate

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121202164059.htm
    the biggest contributors to global emissions in 2011 were China (28 per cent), the United States (16 per cent), the European Union (11 per cent), and India (7 per cent). …

    Emissions per person in China of 6.6 tonnes of CO2 were nearly as high as those of the European Union (7.3), but still below the 17.2 tonnes of carbon used in the United States. Emissions in India were lower at 1.8 tonnes of carbon per person.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The balance of mitigation, adaptation and sufering in our predicament looks far more complicated from this perspective than that of reducing GHGs. After blowing most of us off the face of the Earth, perhaps we can hope for an outbreak of extreme vulcanism to replenish the minerals in the crust, ME

  9. BillD says:

    I agree that we have probably surpassed the long term carrying capacity for humans on earth. On the other hand, I am skeptical about our ability to quantitatively measure the human carrying capacity. Perhaps I could be convinced by reading the study. Not an easy calculation to do and certainly with a lot of uncertainty.

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The overshoot will be solved one way or another. Either mankind can get it’s act together and start living sustainably, or nature will do it for us.

    We can take the hard decisions now and live hard or live very hard later. Later may not be that far away.

    Those four horsemen are mounted and circling in the yard. The age of consequences is upon us, nasty is a forgone conclusion. We need to act while survivable is an option.

  11. D. R. Tucker says:

    Extra: Drastic times call for drastic measures, it’s time for a real carbon tax

    Is nuclear our only option for clean, independent energy in America? Many proponents, including environmentalist, are now pushing for it, but Betsy Rosenberg, host of Progressive Radio Network’s “On the Green Front,” points out that there are considerable resource costs associated with building and sustaining a nuclear energy infrastructure.
    Every Friday night on Current TV at 11p

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFbFlMxwgVw

    • No. Nuclear is a dead end for a lot of reasons. But rather than get into those, let’s take a look at an option that makes nuclear obsolete. It’s called concentrated solar power (CSP) with molten salt heat storage. Essentially, mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on tubes full of salt, creating enough heat (around 1800°F) to melt the salt. The molten salt is then run through a heat exchanger where it turns water to steam which runs a turbine generating electricity. In the newer systems — some already in operation — the mass of stored molten salt retains enough heat to drive the turbines through the night, and in the morning the sun returns to reheat the system. Thus, we have 24/7 solar.

      CSP plants are relatively cheap and fast to build, pollution free, and of course have an unlimited supply of free fuel. They will soon render nuclear and fossil fuel electrical generation obsolete.

      The earth’s deserts receive enough sunlight to power all of human civilization 6,000 times over. Google Gemasolar and Solareserve to learn more about the technology, and Desertec to learn more about the concept of powering the world with CSP.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    Our society can produce hundreds of times as many of almost any product as it could 100 years ago. Almost all of that new wealth and power has concentrated at the top. The bottom 40% of the world is still almost starving to death.

    The fabulously wealthy can consume thousands of times over the earth’s sustainability limits for them. The earth’s poor aren’t doing this. When someone else says that “we” are living unsustainably, I reply, which person or persons in particular are living unsustainably?

  13. mikeohlinger says:

    This is Y We Need to plant for human NON GMO consumption ! No Ethanol No Bio Diesel GMO Monsanto Lies

  14. Anne says:

    Yes. Biology places limits on humanity. But the “modern” thinking has been that “technology” and “economy” (i.e., money) can finagle us out of any natural limits. The problem is, it works but only temporarily, and allows the problem to worsen. And then biology/chemistry/physics strikes back with a vengeance. We homo spapiens are at a place in our evolution where humility, not hubris, will save our species.

  15. Dano says:

    Let us not forget the useful framework to discuss this issue:

    I = P x A x T

    Where

    I = Impact
    P = Population
    A = Affluence
    T = Technology

    Best,

    D

    • Anders Hsi says:

      Dano, can you please explain the I = P x A x T? Can this create a positive impact on the environment as well? Do you have any concrete cases for how this might work?

      I often think that a portion of our society (the affluent) have shifted from a society of scarcity to one of abundance. Now many people eat themselves to death (poor consumption choices in terms of both quality and quantity) while elsewhere people still are hungry. Both have different challenges and opportunities. Perhaps a major aspect is that those facing the challenges of abundance still have a mentality and culture rooted in scarcity. I believe one can have an incredible quality of life without consuming a huge quantity of energy and materials, but it requires consuming the right energy and materials. How do we get people to focus on this choice and on limiting abundance so that we can become truly prosperous?

      Does anyone else see this as an angle to solving this problem of our overshooting?

  16. Dave Person says:

    Hi,
    I think the real message to take away from this study is that global climate warming likely will reduce that biocapacity (human K)perhaps an additional 20-30% during this century. Moreover, the key factor that enabled human populations to overshoot K, exploiting oil and coal for fuel and other products, must be curtailed dramatically. Talk about a perfect storm. We are faced with a perpetual litany of “whack-a-mole” problems and all of their tails are connected.

    dave

  17. Any approach to addressing the overshoot requires agreement and humility. We have to agree to change behaviors.

    Yes, we have overshot. Yes, it’s human nature to reproduce and consume. So the question is, what to do?

    Keep the facts in front of people so they’ll be willing to do what needs to be done. Repeating the facts reinforces the base and erodes resistance among the persuadable.

    Otherwise, we can wait for nature–or war–to clear the table. Not much of an option.

    • Dano says:

      Keep the facts in front of people so they’ll be willing to do what needs to be done. Repeating the facts reinforces the base and erodes resistance among the persuadable.

      How has that worked so far?

      Best,

      D

  18. Wes says:

    Every time I think I’m too gloomy, a new post like this comes along and I find I’ve been ridiculously optimistic.

    I used to think that when climate change hit people where they live, it would change the debate.

    So, I’ve been waiting in vain for the mid-western states burning in 18 months of drought to demand climate action. And the barge shippers on the Mississippi. And the people hammered by Sandy. And the victims of last year’s massive wildfires.

    Sadly, just a few peeps, and then silence.

    We may get action on gun control (and rightfully so) due to the deaths of 20 kids. But how many kids will climate change kill?

    Answer – quite possibly all of them.

    • Britt says:

      Hurricane Sandy – – Sandy Hook Elementary – – Anyone starting to see a pattern here? Maybe it time to read the NY Times Best Seller, ” The Harbinger ” There’s also some uTube on it as well. Without supernatural help, i don’t thing man kind will ever . . .

  19. HF says:

    Used to get all caught up in the unfairness of might makes right Darwinian politics. But at the same time with ecological insight I’ve come to realize that mother earth is a finite life supporting celestial home with limited resources that can and will run out unless we depopulate and replenish the means of consumption. We can’t sustain the current rate of unchecked population growth much further into the future and still expect to survive our own excess as a species. Also, we must extend human life span and develop new space travel to escape climate planetary flux. Thus the focus of bitter reality vs. utopian idealism is for us to be cruel to be kind so that someone will be left to continue and carry on for the human race when most of us are gone.

  20. Alphonse says:

    “The Long Emergency” – 2005: “Overshoot” – 1980; “Limits to Growth” – 1972; “Silent Spring” – 1962; Svante Arrhenius – 1896; Malthus – 1834; and hundreds of others. This is not new information. How many times do we have to be told before we understand and act?

  21. Doug Proctor says:

    I’m not sure what “overcapacity” means. Since the late ’60s we have been consuming, I gather, more than a sustainable amount. Considering just the loss of cod stocks, I can see this is true. However, at the same time wheat and corn productivity/ha has been continually climbing, and I think total rice output, as well. Our coal-fired plants have not reached any feedstock limits, and since China and India plan on about another 1000 coal-fired power plants in the next decade, I don’t think they feel they will run out of coal to burn soon.

    Water: look at the Ogahalla water reserve, dropping at 1 foot/year for the last 50 years. In Abu Dhabi the watertable is down hundreds of feet. Yup, some serious overproduction. In Africa, though, is the water disappearing or just too many for what has always been available?

    Look at the graph: for 50 years we have been overconsuming. We’re still here. So the graph is representing not a dire problem but a future problem

    When, and what is it? With all this work and worry, do we actually know? When does the food run out? When does the water run out? Take war disruption out of the equations: when do the millions of future victims actually become victims?

    I’m not seeing it.

    • “Look at the graph: for 50 years we have been overconsuming. We’re still here. So the graph is representing not a dire problem but a future problem.”

      What you’re not seeing is the difference between natural capital and interest on that capital. An inheritance is a good analogy.

      Say you inherit money, and if you live off the interest you can be comfortable for the rest of your life. But you can not afford extras such as traveling, a big, fancy house and so on. So, you live modestly for a while but then decide you want a nice car. Then you want to travel to Japan….and so on until the principle in your bank account starts to dwindle.

      Now, the interest on your diminished principle will no longer support you, so you continue to borrow from your principle to maintain yourself. This gets harder each quarter, of course, and sooner or later you’ll run completely out of money.

      This is our situation with the planet. We have not gone broke quite yet, but we’re living off the principle of forests, oceans and so on — we’ve long since passed the sustainable harvest point. When the remaining principle runs out, which it will in the next decade or two, we’ll be busted.

  22. Dave Person says:

    Hi,
    This thread is timely because it leads to the understanding that climate warming is just one symptom, albeit a horrific one, of the insidious problem of human overpopulation and unsustainable consumption. Studies of human biocapacity often poorly describe the effects of human consumption because it is the availability of resources not their presence that limits our growth. That availability is very hard to model or measure because it is affected by the interaction of abiotic and biotic factors, and human social, economic, and cultural factors. Malthus was correct 200 years ago but he did not anticipate the industrial revolution, which dramatically increased the availability of earth’s resources (human carrying capacity or K) owing to the use of fossil fuels. Cheap fuel enabled western countries to export the industrial revolution all over the world as well as consume resources from lands far away, globalizing the ecological footprint of those developed countries. Now that global industrial footprint encompasses most of the people and places in the world and is changing the climate. That climate change should be a wake-up call to everyone that we are beyond sustainability regardless of the fact that we currently can grow enough food to feed the world (if we can afford to distribute it – fuel costs etc) and life expectancy still increases slowly. Those metrics are still positive largely owing to the use of relatively cheap fossil fuels and the shoveling of more and more of earth’s resources into our mouths, leaving less and less for the ecosystems around the world that sustain us and the other plants and animals that are our planetary partners. Moreover, it is important to realize that oil and natural gas are in everything we consume, food, clothing, medicines, fertilizers, and including electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines. Indeed, currently oil and gas are essential resources and we are desperate for them. Why else would we try and exploit oil in the Arctic, one of the most dangerous and difficult places to drill, or gas underneath ground water systems that are critical for millions of people? We are like a deer in over browsed winter range, straining on its hind legs trying to reach that last cedar bough 6 feet above the ground. The energy cost and consequences to the deer are more than the food is worth but it still tries because it is desperate. Without using cheap fossil fuels for energy and products (such as fertilizers), the per capita availability of resources for humans will decline. Yet we must at least end the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Drought, floods, and loss of topsoil due to climate change already in the pipeline likely will further reduce those resources. All of our governments and policy makers are wedded to the fairy tale of neoclassical economics that spurns the idea of limits to growth. They have no clue how to manage a no-growth economy and declining consumption but we are all going to have to figure that out.

    dave