Pack It In, Everybody, We Used Up the Earth

Here’s how it is: the Earth got used up.

No, not in some science-fiction future, but yesterday. August 8 has been declared Earth Overshoot Day, the point at which humanity as a whole has used up all of the available natural resources for the year.

So pack it in, everybody, we’re through. Bummer.

Obviously, we’re not. We reached the point at which we supposedly used up all of our resources, and then we just kept on going, which implies that maybe there were some additional resources left.

So where does this calculation of Earth Overshoot Day come from?

The day is declared every year by Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit research group that focuses on sustainability. The first Earth Overshoot Day was in Oct. 2006. It’s been creeping up the calendar ever since, landing on Aug. 19 in 2014, and just last year, reaching Aug. 13. The earlier Earth Overshoot Day falls, the more rapidly we’ve been using the planet’s natural resources.

The exact date of Earth Overshoot Day is determined by a simple formula. Global Footprint Network takes the planet’s biocapacity, or the amount of natural resources available, divides it by humanity’s ecological footprint, or how much of the planet’s resources we use up, and then multiplies it by the days in a year.

This calculation is clearly garbage, but the fact that it’s taken seriously, reported on with a straight face and zero sense of skepticism, tells us a lot about how environmentalism has corrupted science, journalism, and our basic method of thinking.

If you actually follow the source this article gives for the “biocapacity” calculation, it’s a very thin summary of a study commissioned by the European Commission, which contains this rather large caveat: “The margin of error…based on shortcomings of the data sources is hard to quantify.” Which is a polite way of saying that the calculation is worthless. It’s not data, just somebody’s vague guess.

And if you come up with some vague estimate that tells you we’re using up all of our resources a little more than halfway through the year, yet we keep on going without missing a beat, then perhaps you had better rethink your calculation. Sure, you can claim that we’re in an “ecological deficit” where we’re outlasting our resources by using up our reserves, or something. But then you would have to show the evidence that this is happening: increasing prices for commodities, for example, or falling agricultural yields, or massive increases in pollution laying waste to whole regions. I mean, you’re claiming that the Earth is being used up. But we don’t see any of these things. Commodities prices fluctuate, but they have fallen over the long term. Agricultural yields are up. Pollution is down.

The Global Footprint Network has apparently been declaring our depletion of “available resources” to be massively “unsustainable” for eleven straight years now, despite our continued ability to sustain this course of action and to keep finding resources that are available to us. When you get that kind of result, there might be a problem with your definitions for “sustainable” and “available resources.”

Certainly, given the spectacular failure of past predictions about resource depletion, you might want to reconsider making such predictions so confidently yet another time.

But this gives you an idea of the upside-down epistemology that is typical of these studies and reports. They start with a preordained conclusion and select the data that fits it, and when observed reality doesn’t match their projections, they just keep on marching.

But as Ayn Rand reminded us, don’t bother to examine a folly, ask what it accomplishes. What does the Global Footprint Network want us to do? According to this report, it “encourages people to eat vegetarian meals, shrink their energy use, and reduce their paper waste.” But given the spectacular claims they’re making about the Earth getting used up by August, that’s totally inadequate.

Actually, their report contains a very exact indication of what we need to do to live what they regard as a “sustainable” lifestyle. They calculate how much of the earth would get “used up,” according to their assumptions, if each country’s rate of consumption were projected onto the entire world.

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If everyone lived the way Americans live, we would use up 4.8 Earths. If we ratchet our way back to the standard of living of China, a nation still emerging from decades of economic collapse and stagnation under Communism, we would use up two Earths. Should we live like Brazil, so we can aspire to the standard of living that has raw sewage running into the waterways at the Rio Olympics? We’d still be using 1.8 Earths.

To achieve an ideal result, consuming only seven tenths of our “available resources,” which seems prudent, all we have to do is to live at the same standard of living as India—a country in which the per capita income is a little over $5,000 a year, and “the bulk of the Indian population is still overwhelmingly poor.”

Taken at face value, all of these Jerry-rigged environmentalist calculations about “available resources” and “sustainability” are arbitrary and useless. But they are useful in promoting their underlying political goal: propagandizing for the kind of Third World lifestyle that results from using far too few of the Earth’s resources.

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