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Humanity's ever-bigger footprint


Worried about collapsing financial markets? The World Wildlife Fund says that’s nothing compared to the looming ecological credit crunch, as human society continues on a spending binge that vastly exceeds the planet’s ability to provide clean water, air and other essential ingredients for success.

The 45-page Living Planet Report attempts to quantify how the human race’s consumption patterns now “overshoot” the planet’s capacity to regenerate itself, replenishing water and timber as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and other human-caused pollution.

The recent downturn in the global economy, writes James P. Leap, director-general of the World Wildlife Fund International, offers a reminder of the consequences of living beyond our means.

“Yet our demands continue to escalate, driven by the relentless growth in human population and in individual consumption,” he wrote in the report. “Our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent. If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s, we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”

The Living Planet Index, produced with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, offers a measure of nature’s overall health. The snapshot finds that wildlife has dropped about a third, freshwater is increasingly scarce in some countries, and about 40% of the oceans are severely affected by overfishing and other human activities.

Most of this, if not all, is attributed to human demands on the planet, the report says. In 1961, the first time such global data were available, most countries managed to live within their ecological means. By 2005, more than three-quarters of the world’s people lived in nations that were “ecological debtors,” meaning their national consumption outstripped their country’s biological capacity.

Although the United States often takes the lead in consumption, the United Arab Emirates edges out U.S. in the ecological footprint per person. That measurement is taken by adding up all of the cropland, grazing land, forests and fishing grounds required to produce food, fiber and timber, as well as the sum of a country's carbon dioxide emissions.

In its global analysis, the report notes that both population and average footprint have increased since 1961. Since around 1970, the global average per-person footprint has been relatively constant while population has continued to grow. That’s because so many of the additional people on the planet, such as those in sub-Saharan African nations, are so poor.

One notable exception is the increasing affluence among China's growing populace. Its population and per-person footprint doubled from 1961 to 2005, resulting in a four-fold increase in its overall ecological footprint.

“With the world already in ecological overshoot," the report concludes, the "continued growth in population and per-person footprint is clearly not a sustainable path."

It offers a prescription to slow, or reverse, the trend:

 Encourage new technology and innovation in developing nations to help them leapfrog over dirty industries that are typically steps on the path to modern industrialized society;
 Design cities, which now house more than half of the world’s population, in such a way to reduce demand on energy, water and other natural resources;
 Help women obtain education, economic power and access to voluntary family planning, as a way to slow population growth.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Planet Earth; Credit: NASA/Corbis

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I am 49 and totally concur with Jim Shumacher who commented on Nov 19th 2008. This stuff was taught in my 9th grade social studies class and I always remembered it. There is no way 6.7 billion people can live on this wonderful planet. Why can't some brave soul start a political movement to make it law to require permits to reproduce? It could be justified by the fact that there is not enough resources for everyone. Eventually I think it will come to this unless there is a major epidemic that takes out about half the present population. Of course I know nobody has the balls to do this because it would be just to much. It would be labeled the ultimate gov. interference and I am pretty sure there would be riots in the streets.

The most startling thing about this report is that most people with a high school education have KNOWN this for 50 years. Ever since Paul Erlich's best-seller "The Population Bomb" became the big topic of discussion around the world in 1968. We all knew that as a race we were beginning to consume more than the planet could replenish, and yet 99% of us did nothing to significantly to change our culture of consumption except engage in a few discussions at parties or meetings. Why? Because consumption is personal. Protesting and passing laws against pollution can be directed at someone else, like specific businesses or business practices -- but to seriously curb consumption each and every one of us individually must make a real commitment to change our lifestyles and then actually do it and stick with it for the rest of our lives. Almost no one has been willing to do that.

This detailed report makes it clear than we now only have 20 years to undo the last 50 years of excessive consumption. That would be a daunting task even if everyone were to commit to doing it today -- but how many will simply continue consuming-as-usual and figure that "someone else will take care of it"?


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