Humans are consuming way more than what the Earth can handle. Here are the facts we need to know.
By 2020, the global population is expected to consume 75% more from nature than what the planet can replenish. Let’s break down the facts and see where to start with positive change:
Let me paint a quick picture for you.
I currently live in Sydney, Australia, and in many ways it’s pretty great. It’s so great that it ranks 6th out of 189 countries along the UN’s 2019 Human Development Index, which measures things like life expectancy, expected and mean years of schooling, and gross national income per capita (PPP $). In simpler terms, the index is meant to give at least some indication about how healthy, educated, and rich people are around the world. And Australia is up there. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Global Liveability Index, 3 out of the top 10 most liveable cities in the world are in Australia: Melbourne (2nd), Sydney (5th), and Adelaide (10th).
Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone on it lived like a “typical” Australian?
Well, here’s a visual: 4.1 Earths.
Imagine our planet. Imagine all the water, land, air, and life on Earth. Get a very clear picture in your head.
Got it? Great. Now multiply that by 4.1.
Because according to Global Footprint Network, an award-winning nonprofit research organisation, we would need 4.1 entire Earths to keep up with human demand on nature if everyone in the world lived like they do in Australia.
The message is simple: Humans are consuming more than what the Earth is able to replenish, and we do it at faster rates year-on-year.
Our global deficit
When we use resources and generate waste faster than the planet can absorb that waste and generate new resources, this is called an ecological deficit.
Our Ecological Footprint > Earth’s Biocapacity = Ecological Deficit
Different countries have different levels of deficit, and some even have reserves, like Madagascar, Finland, and Suriname to name a few (see here for more data). But on a global level, our ecological deficit (also referred to as a global ecological overshoot) has been going on since the 1970s:
And while this is a global problem, its impacts are not equally felt across different regions and demographics. Future generations will suffer the most, particularly those from developing countries with lower incomes and ineffective governments. TIME says that the six places in the world that are especially vulnerable to climate change are Haiti, Lagos, Yemen, the UAE, Manila, and Kiribati, which are all found along the equator. And the effects of climate change around the globe are already critical today.
According to NASA, even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases now, global warming and climate change will continue to affect future generations for hundreds of years. We have “committed” to it. Increased risks of food insecurity, vector-borne diseases, acute respiratory infections, declining wildlife habitats and populations, shifting ecosystems, and other dire impacts are our and our children’s fate if we don’t take action. In other words, the future is under threat.
Today, humans globally use the equivalent of 1.75 Earths because of overfishing, overharvesting, and emitting too much carbon dioxide. Global Footprint Network runs an Earth Overshoot Day campaign every year to raise awareness about the specific date that we, as a global community, will have used more from the planet than nature can renew in that year. Earth Overshoot Day in 2019 was on July 29. And by 2020, we are expected to exceed 75% of the Earth’s biocapacity even earlier in the year than we did in 2019.
Let that sink in for a second. We consume and waste seventy-five percent more than what the Earth can handle. That is a massive overshoot. And based on the trends, it’s only getting worse. Take a look:
Overshoot Day also differs by country:
How do you think you hold up?
If you’re interested in gauging how many Earths it would take if the world population lived like you (yes, you!), click here for a test you can take.
So, where do we start with positive change?
First, let’s debunk the myth of the “perfect environmentalist”.
As for me, I am far from the perfect environmental advocate myself. And frankly, there is no such thing. Especially with the way the world as we now know it has been designed, it’s almost impossible not to have at least some sort of ecological footprint. And if there are more immediate problems in life that we need to face, like battling a serious illness, affording the education of our children, or working to the bone to avoid an eviction, there isn’t that much attention to go around for taxing and “out-of-reach” ecological problems.
And maybe this is what we need to hear. If we are reminded that environmental advocacy isn’t reserved for only the hyper-committed and that it’s expected for people to have other matters in life taking up more space in their minds, then perhaps we can chip away at what makes this all so intimidating.
Second, let’s open up and not be so quick to judge.
Having open-minded and respectful conversations (especially with people who have different opinions than us) will help the collective to develop more understanding of why people think and act the way they do — their beliefs and influences. It’s from there that we’ll be able to better recognize and, eventually, to break the barriers keeping more people from caring more about the environment.
This means that we need to hold our judgement of others, wherever they are on the “sustainable lifestyle” scale, and to take initiative in sparking thoughtful, maybe sometimes uncomfortable conversations. The last thing we need are ecowarrior ‘snobs’ who think people who buy products in plastic packaging are evil, or that if you aren’t composting or using reusable cups then you don’t deserve to be called someone who cares about the environment.
We shouldn’t be shaming people for being ignorant or making mistakes. We should be working harder to spread awareness, to innovate towards better ways of life, and to empower others.
Third, let’s get educated, listen to the hard facts, and responsibly share what we know.
What is the science telling us? Only from the cold hard facts are we most effectively able to cooperate in making a positive change.
The science will tell us what should we be doing and not doing, together and individually. And this is where our focus ought to be — sticking to and spreading the science. Because the truth is, the learning curves for ecological topics and climate change are pretty steep. For many, it all just feels a little too complicated, unrelatable, or inconvenient; it’s not really that easy to fully grasp or feel interested in it all. So we need all the hands on deck to make these issues more accessible and digestible for everybody, and not just an elite, educated few.
Before people can care, they need to be aware
If we truly knew what climate change was all about and all the kinds of consequences that environmental degradation could mean, then we would have to be either sick, evil, or profoundly stupid not to care. And it takes a good deal of awareness to care.
Here’s are some things people are likely to do without proper awareness:
- Brush climate change off as inflated news (e.g., propaganda that will eventually blow over).
- Put all confidence in innovation, praying technology will somehow find “the ultimate fix” with little to no involvement on their part.
- Feel too inconvenienced or overwhelmed about living “more sustainably”, because the effort doesn’t seem to be worth the potential consequences.
- Sit in disbelief as the planet deteriorates, because they don’t directly feel the effects of ecological deficit anyway. Therefore, does it even exist?
- Realize that there is some need to take action, but fail to do so because they don’t know what they can do or how to go about.
There is no better time than today to fight for tomorrow.
It’s not always easy to believe, but our individual actions do make a difference. And it’s okay not to always get it right. No one can expect that of anyone. The point is to make the effort. If not, then tomorrow’s child might not have a fighting chance.
A poem by Glen Thomas expresses it beautifully:
What if we thought a little bit more about tomorrow’s child? Maybe then we’d watch more documentaries, do more research (using credible sources!), and be more observant of what other people are doing to make positive changes.
Where we can afford it, whether in the currency of time, effort, or other resources, we can and should strive to make better choices where we know to make them. And if you don’t know how or where to make better choices, seek them out.
The ask is not to become a radical environmentalist. Not everybody is going to have the drive for it. The ask is just to care, at least a little bit more than yesterday.