Ever wonder how humans are able to consume so many resources—water, trees, crops, etc.—on a planet with a limited capacity? Well, it's only possible because we're in severe debt to the environment.
Every year since the mid-1970s, people have consumed more resources annually than the planet can provide. We're using more than our fair share, and the problem is only getting worse. Each year, the day that we spend our natural capital faster than it can regenerate—called Earth Overshoot Day—comes earlier. In 1993, it was on October 21st. In 2013, it fell on August 20th.
The concept for Earth Overshoot Day comes from the Global Footprint Network, which has a detailed methodology for calculating when we've reached our ecological limit. In essence, the organization looks at two factors: the Earth's biocapacity (the area of land and water available to produce renewable resources and absorb carbon emissions) and its ecological footprint (how much land and sea is required to absorb our waste and produce all the resources we consume).
As the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet report notes, Earth now needs 1.5 years to regenerate all the natural resources that humans use annually. In the last two years, that number jumped from 1.3 years to 1.5 years.
There are four basic factors driving Earth overshoot: population growth, consumption, how efficiently products are made, and how much stuff we're able to produce. "I get hammered all the time about why we aren't doing more on population. When you look at the math, consumption is year after year a bigger driver of the increase from 1.3 to 1.5—a bigger driver of pushing that date earlier and earlier than almost anything else," says Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of WWF. "It raises the question: Can we make the things we consume more efficiently, and do we need to consume as much as we do?"
WWF's Market Transformation Initiative focuses on that exact issue: figuring out to produce commodities like cotton, soy, and beef both affordably and with minimal environmental impact. Roberts says that global businesses with long-term plans—the Unilevers and Coca-Colas of the world—are making the most traction, most likely because they realize their long-term prospects will be threatened by issues like Earth overshoot. But mid-size companies, as well as companies in certain parts of the world (like China), aren't doing much at all.
While the overshoot problem is rapidly worsening, Carter sees hope in the business world. He notes, for example, that 15 of the biggest farmed salmon companies recently launched a sustainability initiative which will focus on reducing salmon disease rates, using more sustainable feed, and meeting industry standards.
There is still a limit to how much companies can help. As Roberts acknowledges, "Ultimately, we are going to have to come to grips with consuming less than we do." That will be a painful transition, especially in countries like the U.S. that have had the privilege of using endless resources with few visible consequences.
It's unlikely that we can backtrack away from overshoot—at least in the short term. But there is hope. Some project that population will peak around 9 or 10 billion people and then fall over the coming century. Says Roberts: "There's a sense that we are entering a population bottleneck and we just need to get through it."