For the Planet, our Ecological Debt is Becoming Unpayable

Climate-related disasters are costing us dearly

The US had a record-setting 2017 for climate-related disasters, racking up more than $305 billion in costs from hurricanes and wildfires. While weather events like these have always occurred, and while the costs alone are eye-popping, there’s a scarier truth underlying them that we can’t continue to ignore.

The impact of these disasters is growing in part due to the depletion of the ecosystems we rely on to maintain the delicate balance that supports life on our planet. We’ve been borrowing against our ecosystems for a very long time, and we’re now seeing the results of that unpaid debt.

Map denoting the approximate location for each of the 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that impacted the United States during 2017

This map denotes the approximate location for each of the 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that impacted the United States during 2017. Source: NOAA, https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/.

Overshooting Earth’s resources more and more each year

You may have heard of Earth Overshoot Day, the day each calendar year when we begin using more natural resources than the Earth can sustain. It’s calculated by dividing the amount of natural resources (re)generated by Earth in one year (the world’s biocapacity) by humanity’s consumption of that year’s resources (the global ecological footprint) and multiplying by 365.

When the Earth generates more than is consumed, we have a surplus. When we consume more than is generated, we go into debt. And it’s a particular type of debt: ecological debt, signifying a level of resource consumption and waste (including carbon) discharge that exceeds the sustainable natural production and assimilative capacity of an area.

By August 2, 2017 we’d already consumed all of the resources Earth could provide last year. The days remaining in 2017 became ecological debt, with the costs to be paid by future generations.

Unfortunately, this accumulation of debt has been occurring since at least 1971, when Earth Overshoot Day (at that time called Ecological Debt Day) was first reported. If you add up all our days of ecological debt, we’re currently consuming resources that shouldn’t be consumed for another 4,163 days, or 11.4 years.

That bears repeating—in the last 47 years, we have consumed an additional 11.4 Earth-years’ worth of natural resources and are currently consuming resources belonging to 2029.

Converting natural capital to financial capital

Some may find it easier to convert this natural capital into terms used for financial capital—dollars. One way to do this is to equate an “Earth year” to the total annual value of Earth’s ecosystem services. Dr. Robert Costanza and his colleagues calculated one possible value for this in their 1997 Nature article—US$33 trillion per year in 1997 dollars, or nearly $47 trillion in today’s dollars.

If you set this $47 trillion equal to an Earth year, you’ll find the hefty price tag for our years of accumulated over-consumption: a truly astounding $535 trillion. And this is the minimum estimate: the authors acknowledge that the figure they developed could be low and that it does not account for other value contributed by Earth’s natural resources, such as biodiversity.

A few ideas for how we can pay down this debt

So what can we do? When in debt, people usually start by paying off liabilities with the highest interest rates. Of all the forms of capital—financial, social, material, spiritual, cultural—I’d argue our natural capital currently has the highest interest rate.

At a minimum, we should fight to keep Earth Overshoot Day from moving earlier August 2 starting this year, to prevent the acceleration of debt accumulation. Even to do that we’d need drastic and rapid reductions to global emissions of carbon and consumption of other resources. A carbon tax could achieve this, or we could start to entertain more thought-provoking suggestions, such as a Federal Reserve-financed US government buyout of American oil and gas companies, which could do so more rapidly.

This would slow or maintain the existing rate of debt accumulation, whereas to actually reduce the debt, we need to get the principal down, meaning we’ll also need to start pulling carbon from the atmosphere and consuming fewer natural resources. There may be signs of hope here, with growing interest in regenerative agriculture, a carbon capture plant going online near Zurich in June 2017 and the opening of a negative emissions plant in Iceland later in the year.

What the climate-related disaster numbers illustrate is the deeper threat: an urgent need to address the deep systemic problems that brought us here. Simply seeking to adjust the current system at the margins by seeking greater efficiencies or making modest changes to existing practices will be inadequate in the face of these long-running trends.

True sustainability will require finding a different path altogether that genuinely allows us to live within the bounded limits of the planet. Otherwise, as with my student loans, the accumulated interest will continue to be capitalized, further compounding the problem. Ultimately, the ecological debt is one on which we as a civilization simply cannot afford to default.

 

Table: Earth Overshoot Days since 1971 with Associated Ecological Debt

Year Overshoot Day Total Overshoot Days Total Overshoot Time
(portion of year)
Debt Incurred
1971 12/21/1971 10 0.03 $1,287,671,232,877
1972 12/10/1972 21 0.06 $2,696,721,311,475
1973 11/27/1973 34 0.09 $4,378,082,191,781
1974 11/28/1974 33 0.09 $4,249,315,068,493
1975 12/1/1975 30 0.08 $3,863,013,698,630
1976 11/17/1976 44 0.12 $5,650,273,224,044
1977 11/12/1977 49 0.13 $6,309,589,041,096
1978 11/8/1978 53 0.15 $6,824,657,534,247
1979 10/30/1979 62 0.17 $7,983,561,643,836
1980 11/4/1980 57 0.16 $7,319,672,131,148
1981 11/12/1981 49 0.13 $6,309,589,041,096
1982 11/16/1982 45 0.12 $5,794,520,547,945
1983 11/15/1983 46 0.13 $5,923,287,671,233
1984 11/8/1984 53 0.14 $6,806,010,928,962
1985 11/5/1985 56 0.15 $7,210,958,904,110
1986 10/31/1986 61 0.17 $7,854,794,520,548
1987 10/24/1987 68 0.19 $8,756,164,383,562
1988 10/16/1988 76 0.21 $9,759,562,841,530
1989 10/13/1989 79 0.22 $10,172,602,739,726
1990 10/13/1990 79 0.22 $10,172,602,739,726
1991 10/11/1991 81 0.22 $10,430,136,986,301
1992 10/13/1992 79 0.22 $10,144,808,743,169
1993 10/13/1993 79 0.22 $10,172,602,739,726
1994 10/11/1994 81 0.22 $10,430,136,986,301
1995 10/5/1995 87 0.24 $11,202,739,726,027
1996 10/2/1996 90 0.25 $11,557,377,049,180
1997 9/30/1997 92 0.25 $11,846,575,342,466
1998 10/1/1998 91 0.25 $11,717,808,219,178
1999 9/30/1999 92 0.25 $11,846,575,342,466
2000 9/23/2000 99 0.27 $12,713,114,754,098
2001 9/23/2001 99 0.27 $12,747,945,205,480
2002 9/19/2002 103 0.28 $13,263,013,698,630
2003 9/10/2003 112 0.31 $14,421,917,808,219
2004 9/2/2004 120 0.33 $15,409,836,065,574
2005 8/26/2005 127 0.35 $16,353,424,657,534
2006 8/21/2006 132 0.36 $16,997,260,273,973
2007 8/15/2007 138 0.38 $17,769,863,013,699
2008 8/16/2008 137 0.37 $17,592,896,174,863
2009 8/20/2009 133 0.36 $17,126,027,397,260
2010 8/9/2010 144 0.39 $18,542,465,753,425
2011 8/5/2011 148 0.41 $19,057,534,246,575
2012 8/6/2012 147 0.40 $18,877,049,180,328
2013 8/5/2013 148 0.41 $19,057,534,246,575
2014 8/4/2014 149 0.41 $19,186,301,369,863
2015 8/4/2015 149 0.41 $19,186,301,369,863
2016 8/3/2016 150 0.41 $19,262,295,081,967
2017 8/2/2017 151 0.41 $19,390,710,382,514
TOTAL 4,163 11.4 $535,626,903,211,318
Source: http://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/past-earth-overshoot-days/
Overshoot days calculated using the 2017 edition of the National Footprint Accounts
The overshoot day announced at the time are often incorrect, as in the future, we have a better capacity for more accurate calculations.

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