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It’s only early August, and already we’ve used up Earth’s resources for the year

Earth Overshoot Day arrives six days earlier than last year, almost three months sooner than it did at the millennium.

We need about 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we’re devouring on the only Earth we’ve got.

It has been a couple of years since I last wrote about Earth Overshoot Day, the annual sustainability “holiday” marking the point in the calendar where we’ve used up the planet’s resources for the year and have begun a sort of deficit spending that draws down future reserves.

Not exactly something to celebrate. But if you were paying attention, you may have noticed its arrival on Monday, which was day 221 of the year. Which means that, for the next 145 days, we’ll be consuming resources that can’t be renewed until some future year.

That’s theoretically speaking, of course. Because consumption continues to grow year after year, resource replacement never has a chance to catch up, and the point of overshoot arrives earlier and earlier.

You could think of it as running out of food and grocery money before payday except, happily in the short term but perversely in the long, the grocer is willing to put your stuff on a tab you’ll never have to pay. Too bad for your kids and grandkids.

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Last year Earth Overshoot Day was Aug. 13. The year before that, Aug. 19 — so, 10 days’ advance in just two years. Faster than it used to be, but just about par for the recent past.

Some coverage this week has attempted to find a silver lining in a supposed slowing of the pace, if you average the year-to-year changes. But I think it’s hard to make the data support that, unless you pick a group of years with a view to making things look rosy.

Earth Overshoot Day, formerly known as Ecological Debt Day, is a project of the Global Footprint Network, which draws on United Nations data to calculate both worldwide resource consumption and global “biocapacity” in regional, national and per capita frames.

Consumption exceeds capacity by about 60 percent these days; another way of putting this is that we need about 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we’re devouring on the only Earth we’ve got.

Its calculation of the exact overshoot point might be off by 15 percent in either direction, Global Footprint acknowledges, because the data are so massive and complex. And economic slowdown can have a dramatic impact in the short term, if not the long.

Picking up the pace

From 2013 to 2014, for example, Overshoot Day advanced by just one day, from Aug. 20 to Aug. 19. There were a few two-day shifts in the preceding decade — and even a couple of retreats — but five- and six-day advances were just as common.

Since the beginning of the millennium, when the overshoot point arrived on Nov. 1, the overshoot point has advanced by 74 days, or an average of 6.7 days per year.

In the 1970s, when most of the globe had crossed the threshold of unsustainability, the annual advance averaged just three days. (Up through the 1960s, the Earth’s population as a whole was living within its means, although some countries were consuming beyond their means; in the U.S., the deficit arrived in 1967).

Ours is no longer the world’s most voracious nation, however; according to a sampling put together at National Geographic, that distinction belongs to Australia. If all the world had a U.S. living standard, we’d need 4.8 Earths to meet our annual needs. But if we all lived like Aussies, we’d need 5.4 of them.

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However, that selection was limited to large countries — and perhaps appropriately so, because size matters a lot — but having dug deeper into Global Footprint’s data I thought it interesting to note that Australia is surpassed by Luxembourg, Aruba and Qatar.

Little Luxembourg stands in this ranking as the world’s biggest resource hog on a per capita basis; if we all lived that well it would take a whopping 9.1 Earths to meet our needs.

Others notably consuming above the global overconsumption average: Canada (ranking just below the U.S.), Switzerland, South Korea, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Spain, China and Brazil.

It’s not about population, either

You may be wondering how much of the widening gap between resource availability and demand is simply a function of population growth.

That’s a good question, and a highly interesting if discouraging answer can be found in a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme’s International Resource Panel. Basically, the IRP concludes that population growth is not nearly as big a driver as an ongoing, worldwide rise in living standards and a simultaneous decline in manufacturing efficiency.

Since 1970 — the beginning of the same period that is Global Footprint’s focus — the world’s population has roughly doubled, according to IRP; however, the global economy has tripled in that time frame and so has “material extraction.” (Where Global Footprint attempts to factor in all resource consumption, including air and water and carbon sequestration, the IRP is more focused on industrial resources like metals, minerals and oil.)

On a per capita basis, it calculates, global material use increased from 7 tons in 1970 to 10 tons as of 2010.

Despite continuing talk about sustainable practices, and some serious investment to back it up, IRP says, material use has undergone “a great acceleration” since the beginning of the millennium, with China as the primary driver — but not, of course, the primary provider.

Industrial and urban transformation in China, which has required unprecedented amounts of iron and steel, cement, energy and construction materials … has reverberated across the world economy, especially in primary resource exporting regions and country such as Latin America, Africa and Australia.

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Although “global material you slowed in 2008 and 2009 due to the global financial crisis, trade flows contracting in 2009, [it] is again on a growth trajectory.”

Domestic extraction of materials is grown in all world regions to meet increased demand for materials. The densely populated global regions of Europe and Asia and the Pacific have not been meeting all of their material demand from domestic extraction of natural resources, despite large increases in agricultural production and mining in Asia and the Pacific region, especially these two regions have required large and increasing amounts of imports of materials, especially fossil fuels and metal ores, from all other regions.

Population has continued to contribute to rising material demand, but not to the same extent as rising per capita income and the emergence of a new middle class in developing countries

Worse, I think, are the conclusions that we are not only consuming more per capita but also, perhaps, more per item produced, as efficiency was stagnant in the last decade of the 1900s and has declined in the new millennium.

The material intensity of the world economy has been increasing for the past decade, driven by the great acceleration that has occurred since the year 2000. Globally, more material per unit of GDP is now required.

Production has shifted from very material-efficient countries to countries that have low material efficiency, resulting in an overall decline in material efficiency. Countries earn a material efficiency dividend as their economies mature and most countries of the world have improved their material productivity over time, i.e. they use less material per unit of GDP.

What may seem counter-intuitive has been caused by a large shift of economic activity from very material-efficient economies such as Japan, the Republic of Korea and Europe to the much less material-efficient economies of China, India and Southeast Asia. This has resulted in growing environmental pressure per unit of economic activity and works against the hypothesis of decoupling — achieving more with less — which is so important to the success of global sustainability.

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The IRP report, “Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity,” is available here [PDF]  without charge.