September 18, 2020

The green planet, in red numbers

On August 22 our planet reached its Overcapacity Day. At that time, humanity consumed more resources than the Earth can provide in a year without compromising its viability, so everything we produce since then undermines the performance of ecosystems. It’s not free: Like a bank that penalizes a bad customer for spending more than their money earns, we receive surcharges in the form of droughts, aridity, disease, or floods. At the same time, the fruits of that heritage are increasingly scarce. Thus we have entered an ecological deficit.

You have won the lottery and you can live off the prize without having to worry about money again in your life. It’s more; the capital yields so much in the deposit that neither their descendants will know the scarcity. All you have to do is live off the annual interest and respect the heritage. It is not about money capital, but about land and water surfaces that produce what you need to live each year.

Unfortunately, humanity, the beneficiary of this gift, exhausted the 2020 income on August 22. From there, her assets began to decline. A new year will begin in January, but returns and capital will be lower.

In addition, this anticipated withdrawal of funds from the deposit has heavy penalties: drought, aridity, new diseases, floods, sea level rise, fires and other catastrophes are the surcharges for non-payment that the bank of nature passes us.

Earth Overcapacity Day is a symbolic date that marks each year when we deplete the resources that ecosystems can produce without compromising their viability (which is called biocapacity). At that moment, the period in which our rhythm of life stops being paid with surpluses is over and we begin to overexploit the land.

The red numbers come before each time. «The Day of Overcapacity began being at the end of the year in the seventies. Then it was already autumn. Now it falls in summer and in a few years we will have spent all that the earth provides for the first month, ”says Fernando Valladares, biologist and research professor at the CSIC.

Europeans demand more than double the resources available to each inhabitant of the planet

If this deficit were economic, urgent saving measures would be taken in any country, company or home. But it is an environmental problem ignored by all public and private agents of the world system for more than 40 years. “We suffer this debt, but we are not able to relate it to our activity,” says the head of Conservation at WWF Spain, Enrique Segoviano, to explain why austerity measures or spending cuts are not taken when it comes to overconsumption of ecological resources .

Due to this difficulty in relating excess and catastrophes, “although our quality of life is decreasing” and “we have been locked in for months by a pandemic caused by the destruction of nature,” we continue to “sink our teeth into the forests, the oceans, the rivers and wetlands even if they are on fire, dry or exhausted ”, according to Segoviano. “We accelerate part of the cycle and make it not very renewable when we make use of that productivity without giving it time to recover. We are eating the earth “, adds the CSIC biologist.

Eco Footprint Chart Part 1

Eco Footprint Chart Part 2

Ecological footprint

Researchers and ecologists use indicators that allow them to demonstrate this negative accounting balance. The one that best illustrates the overexploitation of natural resources is the ecological footprint. With the global hectare (gha) as a unit of measurement, it calculates in square meters the productive forest, grazing, cultivation, aquatic, urbanizable and CO2 absorption areas that are needed to satisfy an economic activity during a period of time and the unites in a terrain as compact as theoretical.

In this way, according to the reference organization in this matter, Footprint Network, in 2016 4 global hectares were necessary to provide the average Spaniard with meat, fish, crops, soil to live and bury waste and to absorb carbon. As Valladares clarifies, “the ecological footprint is the amount of time and resources necessary to give humanity what it consumes.”

If we can benefit from that 40,000 square meter productive plot, it is because we can afford it, not because we have it. The vast majority of rich countries live above the biocapacity of their national territory, so they need to import what they produce from other states. This explains why a small country like Luxembourg has a per capita ecological footprint of almost 13 global hectares when the annual production capacity of its territory is 1.24 for each citizen. If all the inhabitants of the planet lived like a Luxembourger, the Day of Overcapacity would arrive in February and not in August. Although there are countries with smaller deficits and even surpluses, such as Brazil or Russia, global developmentalism has brought the average footprint of humans well above the biocapacity of the entire planet.

Valladares believes that the “old capital and interest analogy” is perfectly applicable to the problem of overexploitation.

“If the Amazon forest has an annual productivity x and you are taking away surface and hectares, there comes a time when you eat it: we deforest it faster than it grows,” illustrates with an example the also popularizer of global change.

Humanity began to consume above the productive limits of the earth in the 70s and has not managed to reduce the debt

To calculate the Earth’s Overcapacity or Overdraft date, the Footprint Network divides the planet’s biocapacity by the global ecological footprint and multiplies it by 365. By decreasing the dividend and increasing the divisor, the result is less and less. If in 2020 it has been delayed about twenty days compared to 2019, it is due to the impact of the pandemic on the demand for products and services, as they clarify on their website.

Consumption connection

Globalization and consumption are the nexus between ecosystems. They are the mechanism that transforms the hectares of a virgin place into goods and services that are consumed in another. It is the difference in purchasing power that leads producer countries to compromise their natural resources in exchange for euros or dollars. “Globalization interconnects the economy in such a way that supply and demand do not operate in regional environments,” says the biologist.

It is from there, with our role as major buyers in the world, where Europeans “have a lot of room for improvement.” We eat avocados all year long “because they come by boat from Chile”, we travel to the other end of the world “for 300 euros”, we buy T-shirts “that cost us six.” Valladares is firm: “If we had to pay the ecological footprint, things would not cost what they cost. It cannot be that we pay eight euros for a fillet of veal. If you buy cheap speakers that come from China, it is because nobody pays for the emissions of that transport. If you find a flight to Paris for 80 euros it is because the market is cheating.

Rocío Algeciras, director of Facua, believes that the environmental awareness of Spanish consumers remains a pending issue. «We try to train a critical consumer to acquire responsible consumption habits, our recommendations always go towards consumption at source and in neighborhood stores. But at the moment of truth, it is easier to go to the hypermarket or buy online than to go to a cooperative or a local fishmonger for fruit, ”says the head of the Andalusian-based consumer federation. “Any environmental awareness requires commitment,” he adds.
70% of lottery winners end up impoverished within five years. Perhaps now it is easier for us to understand how it is possible that someone can be so wrong.


“It would take two and a half planets if the whole world lived like the Spanish”

Interview with Enrique Segoviano, Biologist and conservation director of WWF Spain

Go to interview

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