How much money have you got in your current account? What about your savings? Imagine if by now, you had already spent all your income for 2020, and you were forced to live on borrowings for the next four months.
Now, imagine if that was happening year after year. Pretty soon, the debt would be crushing and, barring a Lottery win, you would be pushed into bankruptcy and ruin. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening to our planet right now.
Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which scientists calculate that humanity has used up “all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year”. In fact, it is calculated that the last time humanity was living within its ecological means was half a century ago, in 1970.
Since then, our ecological debt has been growing, year by year. What does this debt look like, and who is paying the price? Since 1970, half the world’s natural forests have been either destroyed or depleted, according to the World Wilderness Fund.
In the same period, the world’s seas and oceans have been over-fished and become choked with pollution, with over 8 million tonnes of plastics a years ending up in the sea. Worse, as plastics deteriorate in sea water, they fragment into trillions of microscopic particles, which now contaminate the bodies of almost every living creature in the global marine food chain. A recent study of sea water in the Atlantic found that every cubic meter contained some 7,000 particles of plastics.
The situation on land is no better. Since 1970, it is estimated that two thirds of the world’s wild animals have disappeared. The situation is equally grim for birds, freshwater fish and even insects. The term ‘insectageddon’has been coined to describe the unprecedented global collapse of arthropod numbers after decades of pesticide over-use .
These are just some of the very real, measurable consequences of one species overwhelming and sequestering the resources of the living world to convert them into food, consumer products and all the technological marvels of the modern era. In what is essentially a zero-sum game, as humanity’s numbers and resource consumption continue to accelerate, it involves burning down and polluting the world upon which we also depend.
As a short-term strategy, this has worked remarkably well for humanity, but in the medium to longer term, it is a sure-fire loser.
The Coronavirus pandemic has had dramatic impacts across the world, almost all negative. However, the global shutdown is estimated to have reduced our collective ecological impact by 9.3 per cent, according to the Global Footprint Network. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day took place some three weeks earlier, in late July.
It is of course of scant consolation that it has taken a catastrophic pandemic to deliver the ecological benefits that government policies and high-minded international agreements have patently failed to achieve.
When it comes to using more than our fair share, some countries are far guiltier than others. The United States this year reached its Overshoot Day on March 16, while Ireland used up its share of the world’s renewable resources by April 26 last.
One country that is now close to living within its biological limits is Scotland, which, in stark contrast to Ireland, has been serious about decarbonising its economy, while promoting policies such as peatland restoration and afforestation that have markedly improved its biocapacity.
On a global level, learning to live within the finite resources available on a single planet will require fundamental changes in how we in the ‘western’ world live, what we eat, our energy sources, transport systems and our overall numbers.
Today, food systems use up at least half of the entire biocapacity of the planet. Feeding a human population of nearly eight billion would not necessarily overwhelm the natural world, if we were primarily eating plants and vegetables. However, we raise and slaughter 50 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cattle, 500 million sheep, 1.5 billion pigs and over a billion goats a year.
Each of these animals in turn requires feeding, and providing food and pasture for animal-based agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation in the world. Animal agriculture requires large amounts of artificial fertilisers and produces epic quantities of wastes, which in turn lead to widespread water and air pollution. In Ireland alone, our farmed animals produce over 40 million tonnes of slurry a year, that’s the equivalent of eight tonnes for every man, woman and child in the country.
The influential EAT-Lancet Commission on food and planetary health last year recommended a global reduction of around 90 per cent in the amount of meat being consumed, both for human health benefits and also to ease pressure on the natural world and curb forest destruction.
Similar cuts in aviation are also needed, while globally the transport and energy sectors have to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels in order to avoid crossing thresholds into dangerous and irreversible climate change. In practical terms, this means a massive ramping up and rolling out of renewable energy, to power an electrified transport sector.
The 10 hottest years on record globally have all occurred since 2005, while 2020 is so far the second hottest year ever recorded. Ominously, a study published in May projected that if emissions continue on their present course, areas of the world currently home to between one and three billion people will become too hot to inhabit. This means a humanitarian and refugee crisis on a simply unimaginable scale.
You can calculate your own personal ecological footprint here. While the choices we make really do count, the most effective thing we as individuals can do is to lobby our politicians demanding they support strong action on climate on biodiversity, and to boycott firms and organisations actively contributing to this global catastrophe.
US author and environmentalist, Paul Hawken explained ecological overshoot concisely when he wrote: ‘We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GPD’.