Six weeks ago, André Kuipers, a European Space Agency astronaut, was in a unique vantage point to observe humanity’s impact on the planet. “From space,” he said from the International Space Station, “you see the forest fires, you see the air pollution, you see erosion.”
Kuipers offered his observation as part of the official launch of WWF’s Living Planet Report 2012, the leading biennial survey of Earth’s health produced in collaboration with Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London. Using Global Footprint Network’s updated National Footprint Accounts, the central data set that calculates humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and services they provide, the report’s conclusions are daunting.
By now, you probably know the numbers: Humanity is using 52 percent more natural resources and ecological services than our planet can produce. In other words, about one and half Earths would now be required to keep up with our current levels of consumption and carbon emissions. Since the 1970s, when the world went into overshoot, the ecological deficit has widened each year. Meanwhile, as WWF reported, biodiversity globally has decreased nearly 30 percent in the last 40 years.
The Living Planet Report generated enormous global interest and evoked more media coverage than any previously. Like many complex issues, the data were interpreted and framed in very different ways. Below are a few examples of the range of coverage.
As part of its Rio+20 coverage, the Guardian UK covered the most significant conclusions of the Living Planet Report, as did CNN, the journal Nature, BBC Radio, and International Business Times. The Washington Post highlighted the deterioration of global fishing stocks because of overconsumption, but also noted that global vertebrate populations have declined by about 30 percent since 1970.
National Geographic ran an evocative series of photos of the 10 Countries With the Biggest Environmental Footprints. Other outlets, such as Outside magazine, ran variations on this theme. Regional press such as the Times of Oman, Arabian Business, and Kuwait Times also covered the report.
The Economist featured the Ecological Footprint as its Daily Chart, which evoked many comments. The troubling picture of our global situation conveyed by the data prompted discussion across the media landscape, though some critical comments at the Economist may have been triggered by its description of Qataris as “guzzlers” and Palestinians and Afghans as “more modest consumers.” Those who followed up by visiting our website, and learning more of the Ecological Footprint, tended to be more positive in their comments.
One confusion appeared in both media coverage and commentary: Misunderstanding the difference between a country’s total and its per capita Footprint. Drawing from the above example, for example, one might ask, “How can Qataris (#1) have a larger Ecological Footprint than the United States’ (#5)?” Or, “How can Denmark (#4), a small nation which has adopted forward-looking policies and sustainable practices, have such a large Footprint?”
The answer lies in understanding what the Footprint actually measures, which is the area (measured in global hectares) required to produce the biological resources a country uses and to absorb its wastes, and to compare this with the biologically productive area available. A nation’s consumption is calculated by adding imports to and subtracting exports from its national production. For per capita calculations, this is divided by the number of people in that country in a given year.
Denmark’s per capita Footprint is large in part because of the high proportion of meat in the national diet, which requires tons of grain. Qatar’s Footprint is large in part because of its intensive energy use, which generates significant carbon emissions that need to be sequestered.
Today 83 percent of humanity lives in nations where the demand on nature exceeds what local ecosystems can renew—that is, they are ecological debtors. This is what the science, not instinct or ideology, tells us. The world can no longer afford to be short-sighted or complacent. Yes, we can acknowledge the ways in which humanity has flourished. But to ignore our ever-increasing demand on nature’s limited services, and what that means for our economies and social stability, brings great risk.
That the Living Planet Report garnered widespread attention is a hopeful sign. That awareness of our global Ecological Overshoot is increasing is also encouraging. Few of us can be in the position of astronaut André Kuipers, viewing the planet as a whole. But the Living Planet Report and Global Footprint Network data can help us all better grasp resource trends, and enable leaders to prepare for a future of ever tightening constraints.
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