The Other Debt Crisis

As politicians and pundits around the world bemoan unbalanced budgets and the debt they spawn—the U.S. deficit of $1.3 trillion is driving a public debt of $13.4 trillion—a different accounting crisis was reported Saturday by the Global Footprint Network (GFN). August 21 was Earth Overshoot Day, the day that the world’s economies used up the planet’s “budget” of ecological production for 2010 and began to borrow against its capital account. Thus, economies face not just fiscal but also physical crises—ecological overdrafts that render most economies unsustainable but that go largely unremarked.

Taken together, the world’s economies are ecological debtors, demanding more of Earth’s ecosystems than the planet can deliver. This is possible only by dipping into the planet’s natural capital: for example, by pumping groundwater faster than it is recharged, cutting forests faster than they regenerate, and loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases faster than they can be safely absorbed.

This overshoot has been happening at the global level since the mid-1980s, says the GFN, but it cannot continue indefinitely. Continually depleted ecological capital leaves less-resilient ecosystems that are a weaker foundation for economic activity. An atmosphere stressed from emissions of greenhouse gases, for example, produces an unstable climate that interferes with the smooth flow of commerce. As Worldwatch argued in State of the World 2008, the world’s economies are already suffering from the steady decline of ecosystems worldwide.

The GFN notes, too, that Earth Overshoot Day is occurring earlier each year. (See Figure below, from the GFN.) For more and more of each passing year, the world’s economies rely on the equivalent of an ecological credit card to make ends meet. This practice is as foolish ecologically as it is economically. And just as governments and consumers have faced tightening credit over the last two years, our planet, too, will eventually close the ecological credit line—severely disrupting the flow of goods and services. Then where will we turn?

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