Sunday, September 27, 2009

Living Beyond Our Means

Map projection of the Earth with .4 of another projection beside it
September 25 was Earth Overshoot Day, as declared by a research and advocacy organization called the Global Footprint Network. This was the day when humans had used up 100 percent of the resources the Earth generates in a year. Quoting their website:

Globally, we now require the equivalent of 1.4 planets to support our lifestyles. Put another way, in less than 10 months, humanity will have used ecological services it takes 12 months for the Earth to regenerate.

Humanity first went into overshoot in 1986; before that time the global community consumed resources and produced carbon dioxide at a rate consistent with what the planet could produce and reabsorb. By 1996, however, humanity was using 15 percent more resources in a year than the planet could supply, with Earth Overshoot Day falling in November. This year, more than two decades since we first went into overshoot, we are now demanding resources at a rate of 40 percent faster than the planet can produce them.
Of course, not every part of the planet is using the same amount of resources. Here's an abbreviated list of countries from the media backgrounder document created by the Footprint Network:
Globally, we are using 1.4 Earths’ worth of biocapacity every year. Some nations, however, use a lot less than this, and some use a lot more. Here is how many Earths we would need if everyone lived like a resident of the following countries (as per data from Global Footprint Network’s National Footprint Accounts, 2008 Edition).
  • United States 4.6 Earths
  • Canada 3.4 Earths
  • United Kingdom 2.6 Earths
  • Japan 2.4 Earths
  • Germany 2.0 Earths
  • Russia 1.8 Earths
  • Mexico 1.6 Earths
  • Costa Rica 1.1 Earths
  • India 0.4 Earths
While it's unlikely the Footprint Network has it all definitively proven down to the last ounce of fossil fuel burned (see their methodology paper for details and their staff list for their credentials), there is clearly an imperative truth in their basic argument.

How do we turn those numbers around and get to a sustainable way of living? How long would it take? Clearly, we in the U.S. have the biggest responsibility of all, and the biggest amount of change to make (gulp... and we can't even agree on something as basic as health care).

It has taken us 23 years of increasingly comfortable living to get this far out of whack; I wonder if there's a realistic scenario where we can manage to turn the clock back in another 23 years.

(via The Infrastructurist)

Update: See Paul Krugman's Sept. 27, 2009, column Cassandras of Climate, in which he asks similar questions.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

I'm reminded of a phrase from the 70's, "Stop the world, I want to get off!"