On Borrowed Time

Making Earth Overshoot Day a Thing of the Past

The bottom of the Rio Negro, a major tributary to the Amazon river, in the city of Manaus, October 26, 2010. Euzivaldo Queiroz / Courtesy Reuters

It’s that time again. Earth Overshoot Day is here and the clock continues to tick. As I described in Foreign Affairs last year, Earth Overshoot Day is the date on which humanity’s demand for natural resources exceeds the earth’s ability to renew them in a year. Last year, we hit that mark on August 20. This year, it comes one day earlier. For the remainder of 2014, in other words, we will be living beyond our planet’s means, spending more than it can afford -- the equivalent of a farmer eating both the crops grown this year and the seeds for next.

Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by scientists and data crunchers at Global Footprint Network, an independent think tank based in the United States, Switzerland, and Belgium. They use two data points: the earth’s current biocapacity (the area of land and water available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 emissions) and the world’s ecological footprint (the area of land and water required to meet humanity’s demand for natural resources). The calculation is an approximation, but the picture it paints is undeniable. The planet simply cannot produce the amount of resources people demand, and we demand more every year.

The challenge requires action from all corners of society. Over the past decade, many of the world’s biggest companies -- Coca-Cola, Mars, and Unilever, to name a few -- joined World Wildlife Fund, of which I am president and CEO, and other NGOs to help reduce their ecological (and, in many cases, financial) costs. They understand what is at stake for their businesses and their bottom lines. To thrive, companies need healthy communities, public goodwill, and, most important, a dependable supply of resources. By aggressively pursuing sustainability, actors in the private sector are ensuring their own future.

Just as corporate self-interest can push companies toward sustainability, national security concerns can push governments in the same direction. Within the U.S. government, leaders from the defense, intelligence, and

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