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We'll Soon Be Using More Than Earth Can Provide

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From Jan. 1 to Aug. 2, Earth's 7.5 billion people will have used as much biocapacity as the planet can regenerate in a year. freemixer / iStock.

By David Korten

Four days after President Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) reported that Earth Overshoot Day 2017 will fall on Aug. 2. Most Americans likely have no idea what that means.

The basic point is quite simple: From Jan. 1 to Aug. 2, the world's 7.5 billion people will have used as much of Earth's biological resources—or biocapacity—as the planet can regenerate in a year. During the remaining five months of 2017, our human consumption will be drawing down Earth's reserves of fresh water, fertile soils, forests and fisheries, and depleting its ability to regenerate these resources as well as sequester excess carbon released into the atmosphere.


Stated slightly differently, humans are depleting living Earth's capacity to support life.

The GFN methodology can also generate an ecological footprint for individual cities, states and nations, based on the burden each generates relative to its local biocapacity. It can also compare a personal footprint generated by a distinctive lifestyle to both national and global averages.

The U.S. has a relatively abundant per capita biocapacity compared to most other nations. We are also one of the world's highest per capita consumers. Consequently, the net outcome is a total national biocapacity deficit second only to that of China—a country with a population roughly four times ours.

Knowing that, collectively, the world is consuming far more than the planet can sustain, how do we bring ourselves into balance with Earth's capacities? GFN outlines four critical global priorities:

1. Decarbonization

Humanity's carbon energy use accounts for 60 percent of the global ecological footprint. By GFN's estimate, "Reducing the carbon component of the global Ecological Footprint by 50 percent would get us from consuming the resources of 1.7 Earths down to 1.2 Earths, or move the date of Overshoot Day forward by 89 days, or about three months." That would place Overshoot Day on October 30.

2. Population

"We cannot ignore population growth if we are truly committed to people having secure lives in a world of finite resources," noted Susan Burns, GFN co-founder. She urges empowering women and assuring that every child is wanted. By GFN's analysis, reducing the current global average family size by half a child would push back Overshoot Day by 31 days.

3. Food production and consumption

By GFN's calculation, sourcing food locally, avoiding highly processed foods, reducing meat consumption and cutting food waste by half could move Overshoot Day forward by 11 days.

4. Urban built environment

GFN estimates that increasing the energy efficiency of the urban built environment through measures such as efficient mass transit could advance Overshoot Day by two days.

If we achieved all four of these priorities, we would bring Overshoot Day to Dec. 13 and almost be in balance with Earth's capacity to sustain us.

There is considerable truth to the adage that we can manage only what we measure. Measure the wrong thing, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Unfortunately, our governments currently invest heavily in reporting financial indicators, such as gross domestic product, that tell us little either about actual human well-being or our long-term viability on Earth. In measuring the right things, GFN shatters the illusions of such measures and analyses. Still, we need a more clear, complete and coherent reporting and analysis of the global footprint measurements than the GFN offers.

The responsibility for such statistical gathering and reporting should fall, not to a small non-profit, but rather to the United Nations and the statistical services of the world's national governments. Producing detailed global footprint measurements, reporting and analysis should be among the top priorities of such official agencies. That will be a far greater contribution to national and global well-being than the grossly misleading economic indicators to which they now devote the bulk of their resources.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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