Today is Earth Overshoot Day 2013: the day humanity uses up all the natural resources the planet can sustainably provide for a given year. Our ecological footprint — our pollution, fishing, agriculture, fresh water use, greenhouse emissions, etc. — uses up the planet’s biocapacity — the ability of an ecosystem to regenerate resources and absorb waste. After today, the former will overwhelm the latter for the rest of the year. We’ll be in ecological deficit, inflicting more damage on the global ecology than it can naturally repair.
It’s like drawing more money out of a bank account than the interest can replace. The account gets smaller every year, and eventually hits zero. As a result, Earth Overshoot Day has arrived earlier each year. We first overshot in the early 1970s, then in 1993 Earth Overshoot Day arrived October 21, and then on September 22 in 2003. So the gap between our ecological footprint and Earth’s total biocapacity is growing.
As the graph shows, our ecological footprint actually leveled off in the 1970s. Because it’s like drawing down the principle in a bank account, the degeneration of biocapacity is now the main driver of overshoot. The story is basically the same for the United States specifically.
Different parts of the planet overuse natural resources in different ways, thanks to unsustainable land use, waste production, air and water pollution, and of course carbon emissions and the failure to properly price the damage they cause. Those emissions now make up over half of our ecological footprint, and its fastest-growing contingent.
Population growth is a big part of this, but so is growth in the ecological footprint per capita: how much bio capacity an individual person uses up. China, for instance, has a far bigger population than the United States, but our per capita footprint is much larger.
The good news is our per capita footprint is amenable to reform. Technological innovation and energy efficiency can help us maintain productivity while consuming fewer resources. By eliminating carbon emissions, improving farming methods, reforming fishing practices, managing water and waste better, and a host of other efforts, we can reduce the strain we place on the Earth’s systems. That would hopefully give the Earth’s biocapacity a chance to regenerate.