We've Gone into the Ecological Red

This year, August 21st marked the day that humanity had reached and consumed its annual environmental resource budget. And from now until the end of the year we will be running in the ecological red, consuming more natural resources and producing more waste than the world can replace and absorb. We have been exceeding the planet's annual resource budget since the 1980s, but the date that we reach this point arrives earlier every year.  We currently consume in 12 months what takes 18 months for the planet to regenerate.

By Andrew Simms

The Guardian
August 22, 2010

At the weekend, Saturday 21 August to be precise, the world as a whole went into "ecological debt".

That means in effect that from now until the end of the year, humanity will be consuming more natural resources and producing more waste than the forests, fields and fisheries of the world can replace and absorb. By doing so, the life -support systems that we all depend on are worn ever thinner. Farms become less productive, fish populations crash and climate regulating forests decline. All become less resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

The date is arrived at by comparing our annual environmental resource budget with our ecological footprint - the rate at which we spend it.

The more we overshoot the available budget, the earlier in the year we start to go into the ecological red. Collectively we started to live beyond our means in the 1980s. Since then the date has crept earlier and earlier in the year. Improved measurement and data bring the latest date forward by a whole month in comparison with last year's date. It now takes about 18 months for the planet to generate what we consume in just 12.

The worse news is that this also assumes that the whole of nature is there for human exploitation. Any farmer or ecologist will tell you that for ecosystems to function healthily fallow portions and periods are essential.

In a worst case economic scenario, like the banking crisis, governments can, and did, intervene to ensure that money still comes out of the cash machines. But if ecosystems crash, they cant print more planet.

The same data used to produce the date above also reveal a creeping vulnerability for the UK. We have become more dependent on both food and fuel imports. Worsening self-sufficiency carries a high economic cost as the price of both essentials is rising. But it also undermines national security in other ways.

It was only two years ago that we lived through another food and fuel crisis when prices for both rose suddenly and dramatically. At the time, the severity of the bank failures distracted many from the long-term signals. Increased competition for declining oil reserves and a global agricultural system increasingly vulnerable to climatic upheaval, mean that such events are likely to become much more common.

The price of oil is now again on an upward curve (and events in the Gulf of Mexico lay bare the difficulties of extracting the remaining, more marginal oil fields). Significant crop failures this year have triggered a rise in "food nationalism".

Following serious droughts, Russia, one of the world's major grain baskets, banned grain exports in order to guarantee their domestic food security. Ukraine, one of the world's other major producers, is likely to follow.

Every week seems to bring news of new "land grabbing" initiatives in which wealthy nations or corporations buy or take long-term leaseholds on productive farmland in poorer countries, motivated either by concerns over feeding their own people, or with a speculative eye sharply focused on the money to be made from a combination of demand and scarcity rising hand in hand.

By coincidence the day we overshoot the world's biocapacity happens to fall in a month, August, that seems to have become synonymous with spectacular "natural" disasters. No self-respecting climate scientist will claim a direct cause and effect link between a single weather event and the warming climate. But there is a very high level of confidence in saying that we will face more and more extreme events of the kind that have caused massive upheaval this month, from the vast floods in Pakistan to the mudslides in China.

Greater climatic disruption is one side-effect of over-consumption as we pour more waste greenhouse gases from fossil fuels into the atmosphere than can be safely absorbed. Our danger now is that these dynamics feed off each other. Overstretched and denuded by our over-consumption, the productive ecosystems that we depend upon, and rely upon to meet rising demand, are becoming more vulnerable to a destabilised climate.

We need to start scrutinising and acting to correct our ecological debts with at least the same seriousness as is being given to our private and public financial debts. Banks were saved at the point of collapse after several years of ignored warnings. If we leave it that long to correct our environmental deficit, it will be too late.