The world's demands for natural resources like freshwater, forest products and fossil fuels exceeds supply by about one-third.
And that means that humanity is accumulating "ecological debt" at an unprecedented rate. We're paying for it with global warming, the collapse of fisheries, the degradation of freshwater and the loss of biodiversity.
That's the warning in a new report by the WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network. The Global Footprint Network warned just a month ago that -- as of Sept. 23 -- the world had extracted all the natural resources that the Earth naturally yields in a year's time, and that our debt for the year had begun to accumulate.
The groups likened the ecological debt crisis -- which environmental groups have been warning about for years -- to the financial debt crisis rocking the world economy. The so-called Living Planet Index -- think of it like the Dow for the Earth -- has declined 30% since 1970.
The world is currently struggling with the consequences of over-valuing its financial assets, but a more fundamental crisis looms ahead -- an ecological credit crunch caused by under-valuing the environmental assets that are the basis of all life and prosperity," said WWF International Director-General James Leape. Most of us are propping up our current lifestyles, and our economic growth, by drawing - and increasingly overdrawing - on the ecological capital of other parts of the world.
In a word, our way of life is unsustainable. By 2030, at current rates, we'd need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles, which means we'll be degrading the ecological systems we rely on to survive at an every increasing rate. In the words of the report, we're failing to maintain a "living planet."
Not surprisingly, U.S. citizens have the largest impact on the Earth's resources. We each have an average consumption rate that would require about 23 acres each to sustain. Taken as a whole, the United States and China, with its vastly greater population, are equal consumers. (One measure: The average American consumes enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool, if one considers not just the water directly drunk, but the water used to raise livestock, irrigate crops, process fibers and produce other goods.)
The U.S., China and India each consumes more than nature could provide from within its borders. The debt is extracted from places like the Congo, where an impoverished population has a small relative consumption rate, but the nation's vast natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate.
The good news is that there are strategies that each person, and each government can use to rein in our over-consumption, and bring our lifestyles back into balance with what the Earth can provide. The Global Footprint Network, for instance, recommends eating less meat, taking fewer flights and using less energy as a start. (Determine your personal footprint by using the group's calculator, and get daily tips for reducing your impact.) Voting for those leaders who will promote sustainable development, renewable energy development and conservation is also critical.
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