Earth in overdraft

In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day, also known as Ecological Debt Day, fell on 8 August. This is the day of the year when human demand for natural resources surpasses what the Earth can annually replenish.

In the early 1970s, humans were able to make it to Christmas before their resource use exceeded what the planet could restock, but since then, Earth Overshoot Day has arrived earlier and earlier every year, as we increasingly start living on resources borrowed or stolen from future generations.

The current rate at which we consume ecological resources is, to put it plainly, putting life on Earth at risk. According to the Global Footprint Network (the think-tank behind Earth Overshoot Day), we needed the equivalent of 1,6 Earths this year to sustain our current level of consumption.

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Some countries, especially the developed ones, are more to blame for this than others. The worst offender is Australia.

If the entire world population lived like those in Australia, we would have needed 5,4 Earths this year; if we all lived like those in the US, 4,8 Earths would have been required to sustain us; if everyone lived like those in Russia, Switzerland or South Korea, we would have needed 3,3 Earths.

However, if we all used resources at the same rate as India, only 0,7 Earths would have been required to sustain us.

The cruel irony is that while developed countries are the ones that are contributing most to the Earth’s decline, those in developing countries tend to suffer more as a result.

“We’ve depleted what our planet [has given] us, so year after year, there is less for us to use,” Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, told National Geographic:

“Less forest, fewer fish in the ocean, less productive land [are] burdens that fall disproportionately on the world’s poor.”
As the custodians of productive land, farmers have a massive responsibility to farm within the Earth’s means. If you are extracting more from the soil than you are putting back, you are mining, not farming.

Many of South Africa’s farmers say that their most important relationship is the one they have with their workers, whom they consider their most important assets.

While this is undoubtedly a laudable sentiment, an equally, if not more important relationship, should be the one farmers have with the soil. Good labour is hard to come by, and should be highly valued, but fertile soil is truly irreplaceable.

Digital editor for South Africa's oldest and most read farming magazine.