October 20, 2008

Nature’s Deficit Spending

Mary Campbell, Urban Sustainability Agent, Pinellas County Extension

Overspending our personal budget is something we all face at one time or another. Deficit spending is the amount of spending that exceeds income over a particular period of time. It is a term we hear all too often these days. Nature also has a budget. It can only produce so many resources and absorb so much waste every year. Our current annual global demand exceeds nature’s ability to regenerate that amount in the same year. This is called ecological overshoot.

So far in 2008, humanity has consumed about 40% more resources than nature can regenerate. This suggests that “business as usual” will not continue to work for us and the focus on a sustainable future is increasingly important.

When you overspend your budget, what do you do? You borrow on future income to offset that deficit. To offset nature’s overshoot we are liquidating the planet’s resources, which will impact future generations. We now require 1.4 planets to support our global lifestyle, with countries like America exceeding 4 planets to support our current lifestyle. The result is that our supply of natural resources continues to shrink, while our waste, primarily carbon dioxide, accumulates.

The world first went into overshoot in 1986. Before then we only consumed what the planet could regenerate in a year. The depletion of natural resources has been largely impacted by population growth and the changes in lifestyles worldwide. The more we understand the impacts due to our lifestyles, the better our decision-making can be about how we impact the planet.

The Global Footprint Network ( developed the Ecological Footprint as a resource tool that measures how much land and water area a population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste. This tool has grown significantly since the first calculations more than ten years ago, and results are now used by educators throughout the world.

The research methods are well documented and a growing number of organizations are using the Ecological Footprint as an indicator of sustainable resource use. "How can we live well within the means of one planet? This is the main research question of the 21st century. Humanity is living off its ecological credit card," said Dr. Wackernagel, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network. "While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to liquidation of the planet's ecological assets, and the depletion of resources, such as the forests, oceans and agricultural land upon which our economy depends." Examples include collapsing fisheries, carbon-induced climate change, species extinction, deforestation, and the loss of groundwater in much of the world.

Ways to reduce this deficit spending can be as simple as energy conservation, water conservation, waste reduction, and recycling. When we have the information to make better choices, the power of many people shifting to sustainable choices will have a huge impact.

Examples of this include the new technology of compact fluorescent bulbs that use 75% less energy, low-flow toilets and shower heads, solar water heaters, reusable water bottles (Kick the Bottle Habit – Thinking Green E-Newsletter September, 2008) and any number of ways to make a smaller footprint.

If you would like to calculate your own footprint, there are on-line calculators available that also offer alternatives on shrinking your footprint. Your footprint is based on how you live: the size of your home, energy used, how you travel, the food you eat and the waste you create. Your footprint is broken down into four consumption categories: carbon (home energy use and transportation), food, housing, and goods and services.

Some changes will be easy and make good common sense and others will require improved technologies like alternative fuels and renewable energy. Our ability to reduce nature’s budget deficit will rely on our will to be innovative and create a more sustainable future for the next generation.

Ecological Footprint Calculators:
Earth Day Footprint Quiz
Redefining Progress


Global Footprint Network

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