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GLOBAL: Humans exhaust nature's budget

Humanity is surpassing 'nature's budget' for the year and is moving into the ecological equivalent of overdraft, according to data from the Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation with offices in California and Geneva.

Similar to the way a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, the network tracks human demand on nature, such as providing food, producing raw materials and absorbing CO2, against nature's capacity to regenerate those resources and absorb the waste.

Its calculations show that over the last nine months humans have surpassed a level of demand on resources the planet would have only been able to sustainably support for the entire year. For the rest of the year, an ecological deficit will exist with the depletion of resource stocks and accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere.

"That's like spending your annual salary three months before the year is over and eating into savings year after year. Pretty soon, you run out of savings," said Global Footprint Network President Dr Mathis Wackernagel.

"Our ecological overspending has become a vicious cycle in which we draw down more and more principal and at the same time our level of demand, or spending, grows. From soaring food prices to the crippling effects of climate change, our economies are now confronting the reality of years of spending beyond our means," Wackernagel said.

"If we are to maintain stable societies and good lives, we can no longer sustain this widening budget gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require."

For the vast majority of human history, humanity has used nature's resources at a rate well within the means of what it could regenerate. But sometime in the 1970s, a critical threshold was crossed and human demand began outstripping what nature could renewably produce, a condition known as ecological overshoot.

The network's preliminary 2011 calculations show humans are now using resources at a rate that would take up to 1.5 Earths to sustainably support. The research shows the human population is on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century.

The United Nations was projecting the human population to reach seven billion sometime in September. Current resource trends beg the questions: How will we be able to meet the needs of a growing population and support the increased consumption as millions in emerging economies join the swelling ranks of the middle class? Or provide for the two billion people alive today who lack access to enough resources to meet basic needs?

"Providing good lives for the world's people is certainly possible - but it will not be possible using the resource-intensive development and growth models we have pursued in the past," said the network's director of research and standards Dr Juan Carlos Morales.

"That means finding new models of progress and prosperity that limit demand on ecological assets. It also means maintaining the resources we have left as an ongoing source of wealth rather than liquidating them for fast cash," Morales said.

He said that in spite of the global recession, resource trends indicated that since October 2008, humanity's resource demand had been on the rise, although more slowly than in the first eight years of the millennium.

Increasing evidence showed that rapidly rising resource costs, in particular for food and energy, played a major role in accelerating, if not sparking, the current global downturn. Now governments are trying to reverse the downturn by building jobs and stabilising their economies but this depended on a stable resource supply.

"As resource constraints tighten even more, it's going to feel like trying to run upward on a down escalator," Wackernagel said.

"As we look to rebuild our economies to be healthy and robust, now is the moment to come up with ways of doing so that will continue to work and be relevant in the future. Long-term recovery will only succeed, and can only be maintained, if it occurs along with systematic reductions to our dependence on resources."

* To calculate your own personal Ecological Footprint and learn what you can do to reduce it, click here.

Honest exergy-based accounting, rather than energy-based, may be a key step that will shift humanity systematically first to a sustainable rate of depletion of already stored exergy (= resources), even to positive rate of exergy storage in the Earth eventually, so that we don't overdraw from future generations' resources, but rather eventually add to them for any future contingencies.

Dilip G Banhatti
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