Saturday, August 19, 2017

Humanity Vastly Overdrawing Its Ecological Bank Account



August 2nd was a rather auspicious day this year. That’s because what is known as Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) fell on the second day of August — the earliest it has ever arrived.

What is Earth Overshoot Day, you may be asking?

It is the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. The problem with EOD arriving on August 2nd is that there were still five months left in the year. From this point forward, humanity is stealing from its own future.

In a normal, healthy world, humanity would not use up all its available resources until Dec. 31. In fact, until the past few decades, humanity didn’t even come close to depleting all of the earth’s renewable resources on an annual basis. In 1963, humanity used just 78 percent of the earth's biocapacity.

Yet, Earth Overshoot Day has been arriving earlier than the previous year on a rather steady basis since the early 1970s. Look at where it fell at the start of recent decades:

1971 - December 21
1980 - November 4
1990 - December 7
2000 - November 1
2010 - August 21

Notice the trend? The arrival of EOD has really accelerated over the past two decades. As recently as 1975, EOD fell in December. The last time it fell in November was 1985. At the current pace, it will arrive in July in 2019.

Aside from representing the day when the human population overshoots its environment, economically speaking, EOD also represents the day on which humanity begins its ecological deficit spending.

This earth contains finite resources, some of which are renewable if given adequate time to replenish. Therein lies the problem; humanity is using these resources far faster than they can be restored annually.

Obviously, this has limits, which are recognizable in the form of shrinking forests, topsoil erosion, species loss, fisheries collapse, diminishing fresh-water supplies and higher commodity prices.

Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by Global Footprint Network, which calls itself, “An international think tank that coordinates research, develops methodological standards and provides decision-makers with a menu of tools to help the human economy operate within Earth’s ecological limits."

According to Global Footprint Network’s calculations, our demand for renewable ecological resources and the services they provide is now equivalent to that of more than 1.5 earths. The data shows us on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-2000-century.

As you may know, there are no additional earths from which to extract precious resources. That poses some rather obvious problems, the kind that don’t have easy answers.

The obvious solution is to change our behavior, but humanity has never been very good at that. However, reality doesn’t negotiate. It’s terms are firm and irreconcilable.

Environmental groups, such as Global Footprint Network and the World Wildlife Foundation, recommend some fairly simple remedies, such as eating more vegetarian meals and cutting food waste. Yet, those are tough sells in America, where people believe in “American exceptionalism” and don't like being told what to do.

Big problems usually don’t have easy solutions. The above suggestions are fairly straight forward and achievable. However, getting big industries to stop deforestation and overfishing, for example, will be much more challenging.

The earth needs more trees, not less. Without a massive tree-planting campaign, the forces of climate change will evolve more quickly and be more devastating.

Every single minute, an area of forest the size of fifty soccer fields is cut down. Some 129 million hectares of forest — an area almost equivalent in size to South Africa — have been lost since 1990, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Overfishing has left vulnerable the millions upon millions of people around the world who are dependent on the sea for food and income. Nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished, based on an analysis from the UN’s FAO.

Ocean species are not the only animals vanishing from the earth at a dangerously rapid pace.

A report from World Wildlife Fund found that more than half the globe's vertebrates — mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish — were wiped out in a mere four-decade span. Specifically, these populations declined by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012.

The world’s topsoil, which is vital to growing crops, is in a perilous state; about a third of it is already degraded and the decline is projected to continue. Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, according to a senior UN official.

The global population is presently 7.5 billion. The United Nations predicts it will increase to 10 billion by 2050.

This means, by that time, the world’s farmers, ranchers, and fishers must find a way to produce more food than they have in all of human history. That will prove daunting since farmland is decreasing instead of increasing.

In 1960, there were 1.1 acres of arable farmland per capita globally, according to data from the UN. By 2000 that had fallen to 0.6 acre. Clearly, productive farm land and the human population are moving in the opposite directions.

Fresh water scarcity afflicts much of the world. Only about half of the world’s population has a connection to a piped-water supply in the home, whereas 30 percent rely on wells or local village pipes, and about 20 percent have no access at all to clean water.

Though 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 3% of all the water is freshwater, meaning it is safe for drinking. However, most of this is unavailable for human use. Roughly three-quarters of all freshwater is part of the frozen, and largely uninhabited, ice caps and glaciers. What remains for our use is about 1 percent of the total.

While a concerted, global effort is needed to stop and ultimately reverse the exhaustion of the earth’s resources, much of the developed world remains woefully unaware of the crises that are currently unfolding.

People who live in places where massive deforestation has occurred and continues, such as the Amazon, are well aware the emergency. People in fishing communities around the world come face to face with empty nets on a daily basis. The half of the global population without a piped water supply in their homes likely views clean, drinking water as the vital, precious resource that it is, while the other half likely takes it for granted.

Governments around the world need to act unilaterally, and quickly, to solve these problems or the entire planet will be facing multiple, crushing resource shortages all at once, just a few decades from now.

For much of the world, these issues are already at full-blown crisis levels right at this very moment.

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