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World overdraft

September 27, 2011

Earth Overshoot Day marks the point in the calendar when humanity starts living beyond its means. The day has been creeping forward since the 1970s, when humans first began consuming more than the planet can replace.

Deforestation in rain forest in Brazil
The Amazon rainforest is being depleted faster than it's growing backImage: guentermanaus/Fotolia.com

If the planet were a bank, and mankind were living off the interest in an account there, we would probably receive a warning today that we were about to start spending the principal on our investment.

As of Wednesday this week, all resources the world's 7 billion inhabitants will be using for the rest of the year will not be renewed, say researchers behind Earth Overshoot Day.

We are using more water, cutting down more trees and eating more fish than nature can replenish. There is also more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and more trash than nature can absorb.

Less than nine months

Coal power station in Germany
Some natural resources - like coal - won't grow back after they're used upImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"In less than nine months, we have used up everything available to us this year," David Moore, senior project manager with Global Footprint Network, an international association of national environmental activist groups which is behind the calculation, told Deutsche Welle.

"We would need to reduce resource consumption by about a third to maintain a balance."

Overconsumption of natural resources happened for the first time in the 1970s, the researchers calculate.

Over the past 45 years, they have noticed a constant increase in resource consumption every year. "We reach Earth Overshoot Day three to four days earlier each year," said David Moore.

The Global Footprint Network estimates that humans are using between 1.3 to 1.5 planet's worth of resources.

Second globe needed

Wolfgang Pekny from the organization Plattform Footprint Austria said the world could be using two planets worth of resources by 2050, when human population will have risen to an estimated nine billion people.

"We will witness the change in our lifetime - it's going to be for good or for bad, but there will be change," Pekny told Deutsche Welle.

"There's either going to be enough people willing to truly change to a sustainable lifestyle, or there will be fighting over resources."

Fish trawler
Overfishing destabilizes entire ecosystemsImage: Eric Gevaert/Fotolia

This year, the equivalent of the planet's resource quota was depleted on September 27. Plattform Footprint Austria has found it easier to communicate Earth Overshoot Day than in previous years, Pekny said, because of the parallels to the financial crisis.

"It seems to make sense to an increasing number of people that neither countries nor mankind as a whole can accumulate debt for an unlimited number of years," Pekny said. "Calculating the day we run into debt is a very understandable way of bringing home the message that we're running out of resources," David Moore from Global Footprint Network said.

Peak not reached yet

The researchers take three factors into consideration when calculating 'overshoot': how much we consume, the global population, and how much nature can produce.

Overshoot is a mean value. Many industrialized countries spent their share of what the planet can sustainably produce within the first half of this year, the researchers say.

Traffic jam in Brazil
In countries like Brazil, hunger for resources will only grow in the coming yearsImage: DW-TV

Countries like Zimbabwe and Cuba, on the other hand, still have capacities because resource consumption is low. Canada is also still in the black - but only because of its small population.

If all of the globe's inhabitants adopted the average lifestyle of someone in the United States – including a big house and huge energy consumption – we would need more than four Earths to break even.

Not all countries have reached their peak yet, warn the researchers.

The economies of emerging countries such as India, China, and Brazil are continuing to grow. This means our per-capita footprint will become much larger.

Change needed

Sustainable development is key to stop this from happening, said Wolfgang Pekny from Plattform Footprint, who also encourages individuals in Europe to start reducing their footprint rather than waiting for global politics to change.

"Little is needed to live more sustainably," he told Deutsche Welle.

"It may seem like an impossible task, but then who would have thought that the Cold War would end the way it did - peacefully?"

More awareness was needed, he said, everybody should think about how much is consumed and where resources can be saved. "If that happens, we can make the transition."

Report: Nina Haase
Editor: Nathan Witkop