Saturday, August 25, 2012

Earth Overshoot Day - August 22, 2012

In 2006 when I first wrote of it, it happened on October 9th.   Just six years later it has crept up to August 22, almost seven weeks earlier.

"It" is Earth Overshoot Day, the benchmark of our planet's day of ecological reckoning.   It's the day on which mankind is determined to have consumed a full year's worth of renewable resources.

What that means is that, for 2012, for the balance of the year after the 22nd day of the 8th month, we'll be "eating our seed corn."   We'll be dependent on the Earth's reserves, consuming them at an ever increasing pace.

How can man be using more resources than the Earth can provide?   Quite easily.   The signs are everywhere.   They're tangible, they're measurable, some are even visible to the naked eye from space.   Among these many signs are deforestation, the logging off of essential forestlands.  That's easily spotted from space.   Then there's desertification.   That occurs largely through the exhaustion of once arable farmland and its transformation into barren desert.   Farmers overwork the land, supercharging it with heavy applications of fertilizer and intensive irrigation, until the soil itself gives up the ghost.   Other farmland is being lost due to irrigation with water containing trace amounts of salt that, over time, accumulates in the soil and turns it sterile.

Another form of overshoot is our widespread depletion of global fisheries through overharvesting and destruction of marine environments.   We have become so accustomed to it that many don't bat an eye at the introduction of new fish species in their shops.   It's the result of "fishing down the food chain," a process that refers to moving to a new, less desirable fish after exhausting the better option.

Then there's the destruction of renewable resources through contamination.   It's been reported in China that up to 40% of the country's farmland has been contaminated by arsenic and heavy metals released from industrial smokestacks.  Last year it was revealed that 12-billion kgs. of Chinese foodstocks were ruined by heavy metals contamination and there's no word on how much actually reached Chinese markets.   And an astonishing percentage of that country's lakes and rivers are also so contaminated by industrial discharge as to be unfit for human consumption.   The loss of renewable resources from man-made contamination is also factored into Earth Overshoot Day.

A critical form of Overshoot that is finally coming to widespread attention is the depletion of groundwater stocks, aquifers, that are drained to exhaustion for agricultural irrigation.   This is a serious threat to India which has relied on its groundwater stocks to implement the country's Green Revolution and which now faces the double whammy of groundwater depletion compounded by the newly unpredictable monsoon rains.   Even the United States isn't exempt.   There the mighty Ogallala aquifer that underlies eight states that comprise America's "bread basket" is becoming seriously depleted.

We can see Overshoot.    We can measure it.   We find its presence in our grocery stores and our wallets.   Yet it's not on the agenda of our political leadership except for piecemeal initiatives of marginal effectiveness.   And we can measure their indifference also.   It can be calculated by the annual movement of World Overshoot Day.   Six years ago, October 9.    This year, August 22.  The spread, the number of days that Overshoot has advanced, is the measure of global political neglect.

Overshoot is about excessive consumption and contamination of the Earth's renewable resources.   It is not the result of global warming although climate change does impact the speed by which Overshoot advances.   Unfortunately, any serious discussion of Overshoot introduces issues many politicians, especially our corporatist political classes in the West, would be loathe to consider.

Do we seek, somehow, to hold China and India accountable for their contribution to overpopulation?   Can we scrutinize them and endure being scrutinized ourselves?  We are, after all, the industrialized world that has bolstered atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulations sufficient to already warm the atmosphere enough to warp the planet's hydrological cycle, altering essential precipitation patterns and leaving flooding and drought in their stead.   And at whom do we point accusatory fingers for the rapacious pillaging of world fisheries stocks?   What of our gluttonous ravaging of our groundwater resources?

It's not finger pointing, however, that has global leadership terrified.   It's what must inevitably follow that playground diversion - an assessment of what lies in store if we continue to overexploit our planet's renewable resources and just what we're going to have to do to avoid that "worst scenario" outcome.

There are several reforms that could make a big difference, even if not nearly big enough to actually reverse Overshoot.   One, the source of angry controversy, is to "price" nature.   At the moment industry and industrial agriculture consume enormous amounts of essentially free, natural resources, particularly water.    If these resources were treated as a public trust and given a realistic market value to be levied against those who exploit them industrially it would be a game changer.  

Opponents rush to claim it would simply be turned into an additional cost to the consumer, a simplistic and only partly true retort.   Those consumers, through their governments, would have the offsetting benefit of the industrial levies.   Industrial behaviour would also be powerfully reshaped.   When resources are free, you treat them as though they're free.   When they have a meaningful value, you treat them as any other cost of production - very astutely and frugally.   Those who squander properly valued resources incur uncompetitive costs and suffer in the marketplace.   Those who don't, who find ways to reduce their consumption and waste, reap competitive advantages.

But, until our leaders are prepared to acknowledge the problem of Overshoot, we'll never have the essential discussions, consensus and reforms to even slow much less arrest or reverse Overshoot.  And so we'll be left to live in increasing imbalance with our ecosystem, something that is manifestly unsustainable.

We can't live this way.   Why do we pretend we can?

Update -

Here is an excellent discussion of the problem and what it means to all of us.  It's really worth a look.


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