On April 22, 1970, the first observation of Earth Day took place, a massive series of gatherings, demonstrations and discussions across the U.S. that many credit as the birth of the modern environmental movement. An oil spill off the California coast was the event that triggered U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to launch Earth Day – but concerns about environmental health and the detrimental effects of industrialization were growing, over issues such as pesticide use, oil spills, poor air quality, pollution, loss of wilderness to development and declining biodiversity. Heralded as a resounding success, the first Earth Day resulted in the implementation of a number of U.S. environmental policies, and the movement quickly went global.
Yet today, the environmental challenges we face dwarf those that touched off that first celebration. And the planet we honor on Earth Day is a far different place from that of just four decades ago.
World population has almost doubled, from 3.7 billion to 6.9 billion. The amount of land paved over to build houses, cities and roads has increased 75 percent, from 228 million hectares to 400 million global hectares, according to Global Footprint Network’s 2009 National Footprint Accounts. The amount of productive forest land required for fuelwood, for paper and timber products, has gone up 53 percent to close to 2 billion global hectares. The productive land and sea area we need for food – for fishing, crops and grazing our livestock – has increased 69 percent, to 5.6 billion global hectares.
But the most staggering increase is reflected in our carbon Footprint: the amount of productive land area that would be needed to absorb our carbon emissions. Since 1970, our total carbon Footprint has more than tripled, from 2.9 to 9 billion global hectares. Carbon has also gone from being a smaller part of humanity’s total Footprint than cropland, to outstripping every other area of demand by a significant margin.
The result of this ecological overspending is clear from the crises we are confronting now – most prominently climate change, but also biodiversity loss, deforestation, fisheries collapse, soil erosion and other problems. Earth has changed from a place where we could operate as if resources were limitless, to one in which resource constraints are becoming a pressing and increasingly decisive concern.
Growing Footprints on a Small Planet
In 1970, the world still had significant ecological reserves. Humanity used resources and produced carbon emissions at a rate that the planet’s ecosystems could keep up with. By the time Earth Day was 15 years old, however, humanity was in ecological overshoot: using resources and producing CO2 at a rate that exceeded what the Earth could regenerate and reabsorb.
Today, it would take the resources of 1.4 Earths to renewably produce all the resources we consume and absorb the carbon dioxide emissions we create. Global Footprint Network research shows that if we continue at the current rate, by the time we celebrate Earth Day’s 60th anniversary, we will require the resources of two Earths to sustainably meet human demands. Reaching this level of demand may well be impossible.
(Use our newly expanded personal calculator and determine your own Ecological Footprint.)
The good news is, we can change our trajectory.
Infrastructure, because of its long life, will play an especially important role in determining whether the sustainability challenge will be successfully met.
Just as the choices we made in 1970 still shape the way we live today, the energy, transportation, housing and manufacturing systems we build today will chart the course for our future.
If we invest in systems that can operate on a small Footprint, that do not have negative impacts on biocapacity, and that are flexible and resilient in the face of changing resource constraints, they will provide lasting benefits. If, on the other hand, we design infrastructure that is dependent on a high level of resource throughput, or that damages or depletes the ecological services that make its operation possible, any benefits gained will be at best short-lived.
Similarly, the way we manage agricultural, water and forestry systems will determine whether they will be able to provide an ongoing stream of renewable resources and carbon sequestration services.
In countries with rapidly expanding populations, education—especially of women— along with improved health care and access to family planning options, can help mitigate the contribution of population growth to local and global overshoot.
(Download our recent report: The Ecological Wealth of Nations: The Earth’s biocapacity as a new framework for international cooperation.)
Confronting the Future
The first Earth Day showed that major public movements can have significant effects in shifting policies and values. As we note its 40th anniversary, we have a choice. Do we continue with business as usual, careening toward critical limits not just in atmospheric carbon build-up, but in biodiversity, freshwater stress, fisheries, soil quality and other factors? Or do we begin the rethinking and retooling we need to change the arc of human demand, and bend it toward living within nature’s means?
More on the key issues that launched Earth Day.