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Humanity in ecological deficit for rest of 2013, group says

Most of the western hemisphere will be facing Saturn Friday afternoon when the Cassini spacecraft snaps a picture from the far side of Saturn.
NASA

As of Tuesday, the Earth's ecological budget for the year has maxed out. For the rest of the year the planet will operate on an ecological deficit. And it's only August.

So claims the Global Footprint Network, which calls today "Earth Overshoot Day," its annual estimate of when human consumption exceeds the planet's ability to regenerate its resources for the year.

The sustainability think tank acknowledges that the date is only a rough approximation, and something of an arbitrary factoid.

"It's a bit of a gimmick, I admit," said the group's president Mathis Wackernagel, in a phone interview from Switzerland.

"It's not that tomorrow I won't be able to eat potatoes anymore."

But, he said, it's meant to make a point: Humanity is using resources faster than the Earth can replace them. According to the group's analysis, it would currently take one and a half Earths to renew the resources humanity consumes.

The release warns that if current trends continue, humanity will require the resources equivalent to two planets before 2050.

"We believe this is a risk that is under-appreciated by most risk assessors," said Wackernagel. "And that's dangerous."

"Ecological debtor" countries use more than their own ecosystems can renew.
Global Footprint Network

While it is the poor who are most exposed to the risks posed by evaporating resources, said Wackernagel, the group's release highlights more wealthy countries as having some of the highest per capita impact on the problem.

"If everybody were to live like United States residents today, it would take four Earths to support the global population," the group states.

"In Qatar, the typical resident requires the resources of six and a half Earths."

The group estimates that more than 80 percent of the world lives in what it calls "ecological debtor" countries, which consume more resources than their ecosystems can renew.

"Japan's residents consume the ecological resources of 7.1 Japans," the group's release states. "It would take four Italys to support Italy. Egypt uses the ecological resources of 2.4 Egypts."

There are "ecological creditors," which demand less than their ecosystems can provide, but, the group warns, even the reserves of such countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Sweden are shrinking.

It's a trend, Wackernagel said, that could have major geopolitical consequences.

"As we are moving into a more resource-constrained world, having a biocapacity reserve -- being an ecological creditor -- will have evermore economic advantage, and having the opposite will be more of a liability," said Wackernagel.

"It's like musical chairs, as you have fewer resources, you have more conflict."

The Global Footprint Network calculates the date of each year's Earth Overshoot Day with a seemingly simple formula: They divide the amount of ecological resources the planet is able to create for a given year by humanity's demand for that year, and then multiply by 365.

Based on that formula, Earth Overshoot Day has arrived three days earlier each year since 2001.

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    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.