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Deep in the red

Yesterday, the second of August, was Earth Overshoot Day for 2017. This date “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” As of today, we carry a planetary-sized debt. We are running in the red. This most horrible of days only started in 1971. Before that, humans did not have the population size nor the technological capacity to ‘out-eat’ our larder.

Each year the shortfall is deeper. This spiraling trend leads to more intensive over-harvesting the next year, like drawing down capital from your savings. We should be living off interest, but as a planetary society, we don’t know how to budget.

We have exhausted the biocapacity of the Earth. Currently, if everyone in the world were to live with the luxuries Australians have, we’d need the resources of 5.5 Earths to provide for them. We fall short every year, but it wasn’t always this way.

Some places in the world are doing far better than others, but it doesn’t make up for those who are in the worst debt. Brazil has such huge natural resources is it still in surplus. South Korea needs 8.8 South Koreas to meet the needs of its population. Japan needs 7.1. You can explore how ‘in the red’ each country is by trawling through openly accessible data.

“We have exhausted the biocapacity of the Earth.”

Earth Overshoot Day has been calculated since 2006, but data go back to 1969. That already magical year is also famed for being the penultimate year of global bounty. Predatory humanity then ate the surplus. The first Earth Overshoot Day occurred on 21 December 1971, an ominous day in the history of civilisation.

Alarms bells should have been ringing from the roof tops, but no one was calculating our risk of ecological bankruptcy. We continued ploughing through our savings. John Lennon died in 1980 and in that year, Earth Overshoot Day was arriving in November. When Princess Diana died in 1997, it was in September. By 2009, the year the world lost Michael Jackson, Earth Overshoot Day was in August.

What if we cared about the loss of Earth’s biocapacity as much as we did about the loss of our most famous faces? The dire question is how deep into the red can we go without global catastrophic consequences?

We will overshoot in July soon, the seventh month of the year. The twentieth of July is a landmark threshold. When Apollo 11 landed that day in 1969, we lived free of ecological debt. If we slip to June, we would need two Earths to sustain the planet’s life-support systems at the same level of functioning. Without serious changes in our consumption and carbon-usage patterns Earth Overshoot Day is expected in June by 2030.

Can we turn back Earth Overshoot Day? Seems as difficult as turning back the hands of time. But what will happen if we don’t?

Many people still think we don’t have the power to change things at a planetary level. Here is solid proof we do.

The decrease in biocapacity has almost levelled off in recent years. Efforts are underway to push back the overshoot five days a year until 2050 to bring it back to ‘normal’. A range of solutions are on the table, such as the education of women, but the biggest positive impact will come from dropping carbon consumption through the 2015 Paris Accord on Climate.

We can all contribute by pledging money or our actions. Adopting helpful practices like more vegetarian meals, social ride sharing, or urging politicians to create good policies could help lead to our biggest societal contribution yet: realising the dangers of our collective actions and working to reverse them for future generations.

Featured image credit: The natural resources of the Earth are finite. “Blue Marble Western Hemisphere” from NASA images by Reto Stöckli, based on data from NASA and NOAA. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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