If mother nature were a debt collector, she’d be banging down our door, threatening to take the house as collateral. That’s because four days ago, on October 6th, we passed into a state of ecological debt for the year. This according to a report by the British-based New Economics Foundation, which defines ecological debt as the point where humans exhaust nature’s annual stock of renewable resources and begin digging into her natural capital. The NEF says that this morose milestone came three days earlier this year than in 2006.
Of course, we’re not all equally big spenders. While the spirit moves me, here’s another analogy: if the world were a family, the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, many European countries) would be the teenage daughter who spends her days combing the halls of her local mall, snapping up everything from Louis Vuitton bags to ice cream sundaes, and pausing only to ask daddy for an extension on her allowance. If everyone consumed at U.S. levels, says this latest report, we’d need 5.3 planets to support our habits. Despite all the press that China’s been getting for it’s dirty manufacturing and environmental problems, it’s consumption projected across the globe would only require 0.9 planets.
On the brighter side, though, there are many bushels of low hanging fruit to be picked if we want to get back into the black ecologically. Many of these come in the form of comically wasteful international trade arrangements. For example, in 2006, Britain exported 14,000 tons of chocolate covered waffles, then proceeded to import 15,000 tons. That country also shipped 21 tons of mineral water to Australia, before importing 20,000 tons of it again. Transforming these examples of inefficiency into instances of local sufficiency could cut a good deal of the environmental impact from trade.
I don’t mean to push the “debt collector” analogy too far, but in in many ways, mother nature is already on the stoop with a baseball bat. I could point to more intense hurricanes wiping out homes in the Gulf of Mexico, or Inuit Villages crumbling in the Arctic. Does this mean we have to “tighten our belts?” Perhaps. I’ll start with a few less Louis Vuitton bags, and a few more local chocolate-covered waffles.