Earth overshoot day: the natural debt

Sara Montesel
Current events

Mankind has succeeded in the difficult feat of changing the conditions of the planet so drastically that it has become a dangerous place for their own survival.

In our last issue of La Livella Magazine, an extract from the book The Nation of Plants by Stefano Mancuso, an internationally renowned scientist who is head of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) at the University of Florence, was published in the current affairs section. The choice of this excerpt, concerning man’s destructive capacity on the planet – unparalleled in the history of life – is not accidental. On the 29th July this year, we “celebrated” Earth Overshoot Day, the day on which the Earth depleted the quantity of renewable natural resources that should be sufficient for the entire year 2021. This means that since 29th July, anticipating the 22nd August of last year, we have begun to use non-renewable resources for our consumption, by borrowing them from future generations. If we compare human needs (in terms of carbon emissions, cultivated land, exploitation of fish stocks, and use of forests for timber) with the ability to regenerate these resources and absorb the carbon emitted, we can calculate the date on which the renewable resources produced by the planet are depleted.
The news was announced by Councillor Susan Aitken, Leader of Glasgow City Council, on behalf of the Global Footprint Network and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.  Currently, according to the GFN, the world’s population is consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets per year and this figure is estimated to rise to two planets by 2030 based on current trends.

About fifty years ago – starting in the early 1970s – mankind started to consume more than what the Earth can produce; from then on, the day when the limit is exceeded comes earlier and earlier – in 1975 it occurred on the 28th of November – due to the growth of the world’s population and the increasing consumption worldwide. Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, the world’s population ideally charted a mild linear increase on the chart of history. From then on, with the arrival of technological innovations, the discovery of new lands and medical advances, a phase of exponential growth began and from the mild increase on the chart we were hit by a sharp surge, resulting in a fourteen-fold increase in population. Needless to say, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, as hoping that the finiteness of the earth’s resources can change by adapting to a potentially uncontrolled human proliferation in terms of births and consumption per individual is unfortunately in vain.

As Mancuso writes:

[…] from the moment of their arrival, some 300,000 years ago – which is nothing compared to the history of life dating back some 3.8 billion years ago – mankind has succeeded in the difficult feat of changing the conditions of the planet so drastically that it has become a dangerous place for their own survival. The causes of this reckless behaviour are partly inherent in their predatory nature and partly, I believe, due to a total lack of awareness of the rules governing the existence of a community of living beings.

On closer inspection, since 1900 the population’ s swift growth has led to an increase in productivity and the economic well-being of a portion of humanity; but the cost of well-being comes at a high price for ecosystems and natural resources. According to some studies, on the basis of current living standards, the Earth could accommodate at most between two and three billion people, i.e. the population of the mid-20th century. There are two possible solutions to such a scenario: either we reduce our impact on the Earth’s resources through technological progress, or we reduce the Earth’s population. This last possibility, since it relates to the area of reproduction, which concerns the intimacy and freedom of choice of each individual – as well as being subject to a certain degree of impulsiveness, which is typical of animal nature – tends to be divided; there are those who consider it against nature and dangerous for the survival of the species, and those who consider it not only a reasonable idea, but one that necessarily needs to be applied. 
The encouraging news is that no one will have to be forced to stop having children, as it seems that birth rates are already falling in all the most economically developed countries: the world’s population is expected to start falling by the middle of this century. Indeed, it seems that where the cultural level is higher, fertility is lower. On our continent, as well as in North America, Australia and New Zealand, there are certainly no uncontrolled births occurring as there are in Africa where the annual population growth rate is 2.4%. This is followed by Latin America and Asia (with the exception of China), which are also experiencing a considerable growth in numbers.
To provide an illustration of the uncontrolled expansion of certain areas of the planet, Nigeria had 50 million inhabitants in 1950 and today has 150 million. These worrying figures have led the countries of the ECOWAS area (Western Sub-Saharan Union) to allocate 5% of their public budgets to finance policies to curb population growth, with the intention of reducing the average birth rate to three children per woman.
If we were to reason unemotionally, not having children is the best way to reduce our impact on the planet. It reduces energy intake, atmospheric emissions, displacement, the amount of water and food needed, the amount of land occupied and cleared, and the amount of waste produced.
It is worth pointing out, however, that firstly the issue does not boil down solely to a factor of the birth rate; and secondly that it is not really an equal share of blame among every living human being if our lifestyle is no longer sustainable: after all, the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than double the consumption of 3.1 billion less affluent people.
Therefore, it is not just a question of the amount of people on the planet, but also of the fact that the richest classes produce and consume disproportionately more than the poor ones – just 10% of the population is responsible for 52% of global emissions. 
In light of this, and considering that most newborn babies are born in poorer countries, it is clear that population growth is only part of the overall problem.

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