Eye on France: This is the day of the global ecological overdraft

Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris. Things aren't great at ground level either.
Earth from geostationary height depicting swarms of space debris. Things aren't great at ground level either. AFP

On Monday, 29 July, the human race started living on credit. As calculated by the organisation the Global Footprint Network, from now till the end of December, we will be using resources faster than the planet can replace them.


Today’s the day. The French papers all carry reports on the latest warning, without seeming unduly alarmed.

“Global renewable resources used up earlier than ever” says Le Monde.

This is “The day the human race starts life in the red” according to Le Figaro.

Libération tells us that “Humanity has already exhausted planetary resources for the year”.

Even the normally staid and sober business daily Les Echos gets in on the act, with a headline reading “The day of the overdraft has arrived” and an article warning that we have guzzled renewable natural resources at such a rate that the planet simply cannot keep up with our predatory appetite.

So, what are we talking about?

Basically, about the human capacity to wipe out fish, forests and farmland at a rate beyond the earth’s capability to replace the things we destroy.

There’s an organisation called the Global Footprint Network which, every year since 2003, has been calculating the day on which world resources for the year actually run out. Last year it was 1 August, this year it’s today, three days earlier than 2018. The footprinters have obviously done a bit of back-tracking, since they are in a position to suggest that, twenty years ago, the deadly date was 29 September, exactly two months less bad than this year. And in 1979, humanity used to get all the way to early November before using up everything.

This year’s global average suggests that we would need one-and-three-quarter planets to supply human renewable needs for the year.

And, mercifully, it’s an average. If the entire global population was stuffing it away at the rate of the folk in the United States, we’d need five earths to cope. At the other end of the scale, we’d have a considerable surplus at the end of 12 months if we all lived like Indians.

A French lifestyle world require 2.7 Earths if adopted globally.

And before you say “more scare statistics from another worthy think tank that wants to save the planet”, you should consider the fact that these estimations are based on scientific data on resource use collected by the United Nations in more than 200 countries since 1951.

The figures are scary, but the report is anything but scaremongering.

Whatever happened to COP 21?

Despite the political and media blitz which welcomed the signing of the COP 21 agreement here in Paris in 2015, nothing significant has been done, according to Laurent Gauffier of the French branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

The possibility of keeping global warming down to the 1.5°C agreed in 2015 seems ever slimmer, and the effort required is now so much heavier than if we had really started four years ago.

Ironically, the Global Footprint Network says that “living within our planet’s means is technologically possible, would be financially beneficial, and is our only chance of a prosperous future.”

A cynic, or a realist, might shorten that last phrase to read “our only chance of a future”.

If we stopped wasting food, we could add ten days to the deadline; if we cut greenhouse gas emissions in half we’d add 93 days. And so on. If pigs could fly . . . etc, etc.

One year ago, when Nicolas Hulot was still the French environment minister, he promised to start pushing back against the overdraft date.

“We have to learn to produce and consume differently,” he said, “otherwise our current behaviour will unquestionably lead to the collapse of ecosystems, and have tragic consequences for our economy, our health, our ability to feed ourselves.”

A couple of weeks later, Nicolas Hulot resigned his job.

Today, Hulot’s replacement, Brune Poirson (who is not even a full minister) says she’ll have it all sorted by September.

Laurent Gauffier of the WWF is not so sure. “It’s all very fine to ban plastic coffee spoons,” he says. “But what we need to do is refuse deals like CETA, the free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. And we should refuse any agreement with the members of Mercosur, the South American Common Market.”

The Mercosur talks are currently in progress. And the French parliament ratified the terms of the CETA deal last week, just six days before we used up everything. Except our stock of flying pigs.

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