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Humanity's ever-bigger footprint

November 9, 2008 | 12:14 pm


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