The 7.5 billion plus people on Earth are consuming far beyond what the planet can provide. This year, August 1 was estimated as the cut-off date after which all Earthlings will be ‘living in debt’ — overdrawing their planet’s resources for the remaining 5 months of 2018. As per the calculation of California-based non-profit group Global Footprint Network, Earth’s resources on average are being consumed 1.7 times faster than these can be regenerated in a year, so that 1.7 Earths would be needed to meet mankind’s current consumption levels. In comparison, the Earth Overshoot Day — which fell on August 1 this year — was December 23 in 1970, October 13 in 1990, October 4 in 2000 and August 28 in 2010. Earth has thus been in ‘overshoot mode’ since 1970, and the gap has been growing wider ever since. The gap is calculated between Earth’s total ‘bio-capacity’ and mankind’s ‘ecological footprint’. Data from United Nations and other international agencies are used to work out the average productivity across Earth’s croplands, grazing lands, developed lands, forests and fishing grounds — all of which make up the planet’s bio-capacity. Mankind’s ecological footprint is then calculated from the demand for crops, livestock, fish, timber, space for urban development and forests needed (as carbon sinks) to absorb carbon dioxide emitted due to burning of fossil fuels. According to the survey, 60 percent of this ecological footprint is due to high carbon levels brought about by burning fossil fuel and felling trees. The sooner naturally replenishable resources are used up in a year, the earlier mankind will use resource stocks that will produce next year’s food and carbon sinks.
In terms of ecological footprint, countries differ. Consumption levels in United States and France are such that if the rest of the world consumed likewise, it would require the resources of 4 and 2.8 Earths respectively to meet the demand; the Overshoot Day for US is currently March 15 and for France May 5. While such countries are ‘ecological debtors’, others producing more resources than they consume are as varied as Canada and Surinam, while the likes of China and India are fast coming up as consumer economies. The survey sheds light on how some resources are depleting fast. Within 2025 itself, according to UN projections, there could be 180 crore people living in countries beset by total water scarcity, which could trigger displacements of population on vast scale; world oil reserves could last only up to 50 years; even an element as basic as phosphorus, without which plants cannot grow, could be exhausted in a century. While resources like these are running out sooner or later, it is unforgiveable how mankind is wasting some products, particularly food. As much as one-third of the food produced worldwide, about 1.3 billion tonnes, is wasted every year; in the US alone, half the food produced is wasted. To be sure, the projections in surveys like those by Global Footprint Network is opposed by a section of futurologists who swear by human resources as the greatest resource, who assert that mankind could actually be entering an era of abundance brought about by ever faster stream of innovations in a networked world. According to them, new resources are just round the corner awaiting discovery. An optimistic, can-do mindset is surely the way to forge ahead, but it helps to be aware of where we stand. It will simply not do to underestimate humanity’s negative impact on the planet manifested in so many ways like loss of green cover, soil erosion and depleting nutrients, reduced crop productivity, species extinction and extreme weather events. There is no way to sustain a pattern of living that leads lead to worldwide breakdown of natural ecosystems, along with economic collapse due to spiralling costs of increasingly scarce resources. The Earth overshoot concept can help us all to keep the focus on intelligent consumption, cutting waste and adopting the low carbon path towards clean energy.