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Don’t worsen the strains on this planet


Sometime in the late ‘90s, the day known as “Earth Overshoot Day” coincided with Jonesborough’s Storytelling Festival. Overhoot day, as a Zeit reporter reminded us, should have a big red mark on our calender. It is the day when humankind overdraws its ecological bank account, having consumed by then as much of the natural resources as the planet can renew in a year.

The Earth’s biological capacity refers to what it can produce of fish, grains and other plant-based foods we need, timber and fiber and other natural resources, and to its ability to clean the air and absorb our wastes.

It is the account we draw on for human consumption. Overdrawing it risks that the fish stocks become depleted, animals and plants disappear and their nutrition and air- and water-cleansing services are lost, carbon-pollution overload in the atmosphere and ocean destabilizes the climate, and future people face a planetary home with far less natural beauty and resources to sustain their lives.

The day has steadily moved forward over the past half-century. At the beginning of the 1970’s it came in December; 20 years ago at the end of September; during the current decade in mid-August.

This year it fell on August 2, the earliest date when, for the globe as a whole, mankind operates in the red.

It is a day to remind us how small our habitable planet is, how vulnerable its beauty and how finite its biological systems’ ability to function sustainably under excessive human consumption, pollution overload and technological impacts. To remember, as well, that our species’ welfare is fundamentally tied to that of the planet’s natural systems.

The writer points to a ray of optimism also – the speed of the overshoot date heading forward has been slowing. “If we were able,” Stefan Schmitt notes, “to delay the overdraw date every year by just five days, our budget with the Earth would be in balance again, in the green, by the middle of the century.”

Under the new U.S. administration, however, a number of the positive, energy-consumption and pollution- control developments that had aided the slow-down of the overshoot date are being revised, abandoned, or defunded. Since 1992, the highly popular Energy Star program, identifying the most energy efficient appliances, electronics and other products on the market, has enabled us to lower the utility bills by more than $400 billion. It has given back to consumers $4 in savings for every dollar invested in an Energy Star device. And to help the Earth, it has kept a very large amount – 2.8 billion tons – of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget for the Environmental Protection Agency would cripple the program.

Our mobility largely depends on gasoline-powered vehicles. New clean car standards adopted five years ago, which nearly double the fuel efficiency of automobiles, save us money on gas and protect public health, are being reviewed for weakening. And the Clean Power Plan, which cuts carbon emissions from electricity-generating plants, was stated to be repealed by the Administration, this month.