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Eco-overdraft sends earth into the red

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- Barely a day goes by without some new scientific study or media headline adding to what is already a bleak picture of global environmental degradation.

Climate change, global warming, pollution, drought, flooding, species extinction -- the bad news has become so frequent that it is now only the most dramatic, shocking and unusual of statistics that have the power to really grab our attention.

One such statistic was released this week by the new economics foundation (nef), an independent, UK-based think-tank working on economic, environmental and social issues.

Using research produced by Global Footprint Network, a highly respected American academic body specializing in environmental and economic sustainability, and Best Foot Forward, a UK organization researching in the same area, nef calculated the day of the year on which the earth goes into "ecological debt."

This is a measure of the speed at which humans are using up the earth's natural resources. Working on the basis that, in a calendar year, the earth's ecosystems -- forests, water supplies, fish stocks, agricultural land etc. -- can only sustain and recover from a certain level of human usage, ecological debt marks the point at which that usage reaches and passes annual capacity.

In banking terms, it is the point at which an account holder uses up all their savings and goes into overdraft, spending money they don't have.

The measure was first introduced in 1987, when it was calculated that humanity was in ecological "overshoot" on December 19. If that was alarming, the latest calculations are even more so because, according to nef, in 2006 the world tipped into ecological deficit at record speed -- on October 9.

For the last quarter of this year the world's population will thus be consuming resources that the earth simply does not have the capacity to replenish.

"By living so far beyond our environmental means, and running up ecological debts, we make two mistakes," explains Andrew Simms, policy director at nef.

"First, we deny millions globally who already lack access to sufficient land, food and clean water the chance to meet their needs. Secondly, we put the planet's life support mechanisms in peril."

"If you were managing a business you would be considered grossly negligent if you had no idea of your assets or cash flow. Yet this is how we manage our environmental resources."

Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network, agrees.

"Humanity is living off its ecological credit card and can only do this by liquidating the planet's natural resources," he says.

"While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to the depletion of resources, such as the forests, oceans and agricultural land upon which our economy depends."

Evidence of the increasing severity of Mankind's ecological deficit can be seen across the world, with essential resources disappearing many times faster than the earth's natural ecosystems can replace them.

In the seas, for example, chronic over-fishing has reduced stocks of some species, notably Atlantic and North Sea cod and Mediterranean bluefin tuna, by as much as 90 percent over the last 50 years.

The world's forests, likewise, are being felled at an alarming and wholly unsustainable rate. According to Friends of the Earth 15 million hectares of tropical rainforest are being cut down every year, while over the past 50 years three billion hectares of forest -- almost half the world's total forest cover -- has been lost.

"The science of resource depletion is unequivocal," says Craig Simmons, co-founder and director of Best Foot Forward. "We need proper environmental accounting, and the idea of ecological debt helps us towards that."

While the concept of "ecological debt" is a powerful one, however, whether it is sufficiently so to actually make people adapt their lifestyles to promote greater sustainability is another matter.

"To deliver a sustainable future it is necessary to reduce demand, improve efficiency and switch to renewables," says Simmons.

"We need to protect our ecosystems and improve their productivity, increase the efficiency of our resource use, and consume fewer resources per person where over-consumption is the norm."

While efforts are being made, the general scientific consensus is that we are simply not doing enough. On current trends it looks like our ecological bank balance, far from getting back into credit, is set to drop ever deeper into the red.


A forest fire rages in the Bolivian Amazon. More than half of the world's total forest cover has been lost over the past 50 years.

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