In the era of the worst recession (don’t say “depression”) since the 1930s, the burst of the housing bubble, a banking industry meltdown, the European Union on the brink of disaster, and a global protest that is now approaching, mind-bogglingly, its one-year anniversary, fiscal responsibility as a watchword is coming to the fore in many countries. Now is the time to pay off our debts, reduce spending, tighten our belts.
Okay, fair enough. But money is just an abstract concept. What of the physical (and very finite) resources we’ve been spending? Will we continue to spend like drunken sailors in that case?
Of course I’m talking about the world’s environmental resources. How much can we afford to consume in a given year so that the Earth has the ability to replenish and recover? The answer: pretty much our total as of last week. Yes, 2012′s Earth Overshoot Day landed on August 22. We’ve already been running into the red for eight days, and guess what, we have a sizable deficit from years past already. We’re about to add another four-plus months’ worth to it.
As the Global Footprint Network explains, Earth Overshoot Day is the approximate date each year we’ve taken all the Earth can sustainably provide. It’s a sort of approximate average of when we’ve produced all the CO2 that can be sequestered, reduced fishing stocks to the point where they can still (if barely) recover their original populations, drawn just enough nutrients from the soil that it’s capable of sustaining the same crop next year.
Back in 1992, Earth Overshoot Day fell on October 21. That means we still overconsumed, taxing the Earth by taking over 20 percent more than it had to give us. We’d taken all the milk and then, in addition, slaughtered some of the herd; we’d emptied our grain silo and begun eating the seed corn. And we’ve kept doing it every year since.
The last couple of years, Earth Overshoot Day arrived in September. Now here we are in August, and we’ve used up more than we should if we expect our natural resources to recover. No surprise, with a larger and larger population and an increase in the average person’s level of consumption, Westerners leading the charge. The example of Britain’s higher demand for fish than the available supply is a capsule-view of this global issue.
What happens when a country goes too far into debt? Eventually, it will collapse, and it’s messy and bloody, as we’ve seen in Greece. What about when the global biosphere collapses? Let’s not find out. Spend responsibly.
Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center