Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

When will humanity’s annual demand on the Earth’s natural environment exceed what our collective ecosystems can annually generate? It has already happened, starting in the early 1970s. This is according to the Global Footprint Network, an America- and Swiss-based organisation that has pioneered an ecological footprint accounting metric.

They explain that humanity is now using natural resources 1.7 times faster than our global ecosystems can regenerate. This is akin to using 1.7 Earths, with carbon emissions comprising 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint.

They then take this further and calculate ground-zero month for natural resources, when life on Earth will no longer be able sustain itself in the face of overwhelming global destruction of the natural environment. According to their ecological footprint calendar, this day has moved from late September in 1997 to August 1 this year. In other words, it is the earliest date since the world first went into overshoot.

In a measurable way they show how up until the 1970s the whole of humankind had eaten away nine days, but since then we have eaten away four months and it’s rapidly accelerating. Should we get to January 1, well, unless we want to destroy ourselves and our planet, we have to avoid that.

Is this more climate alarmism? No, says the CEO and co-founder of the Global Footprint Network, Mathis Wackernagel, the evidence is all around us.

"Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet," he says. "The costs of global ecological overspending are becoming increasingly evident around the world, in the form of deforestation; fresh-water scarcity; soil erosion; biodiversity loss; and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to climate change and more severe droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes."

He says the time has come to end this ecological Ponzi scheme "by design, not by disaster". It’s time to #MoveTheDate. Wackernagel says our cities need to be at the frontline of the global campaign to #MoveTheDate given that 70% to 80% of people will live in cities or urbanised area by 2050; SA is already hitting the 70% urbanised mark, with some suggesting it’s closer to 90%.

Mathis Wackernagel says the evidence is all around us. ‘Our current economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet. The costs of global ecological overspending are becoming increasingly evident around the world’.

There are so many incredible examples of smart city planning, energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, good rail and public transport systems, considering that personal transport makes up 14% of humanity’s carbon footprint. According to the Global Footprint Network, "If we reduce driving by 50% globally and assume one third of car miles are replaced by public transportation and the rest by biking and walking, Earth Overshoot Day would move back 12 days."

This isn’t about switching off our lights for a day or rallying over water over a few months, as laudable as these actions are for some; the caveat is that so many people still live without lights or tap water on a permanent basis. This is about total change, a wholesale conversion to integrated thinking, based on King IV’s governance framework’s integration of all six capitals, in which the elements of natural capital — notably air, water, land, minerals, forests, biodiversity and ecoystems — are completely integrated with the financial and manufacturing capitals, and the human, intellectual, social and relationship capitals. Planning and profiting for any one of these cannot be at the expense of any of the others.

Think globally, act locally

I am of the view that business has to lead by example. We need to become advocates and protagonists of change, such as Ray Anderson, the chair and founder of a large carpet company called Interface, who read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and realised in 1995 that he needed to play his part in creating a sustainable world.

He introduced sustainable manufacturing and large-scale recycling, and the result was that he increased his sales and doubled his profits while turning the traditional "take/make/waste" industrial system on its head.

He challenged himself and his employees to hold Interface to the highest ecological standards — "to take nothing from the Earth that can’t be replaced by the Earth". He introduced sustainable manufacturing and large-scale recycling, and the result was that he increased his sales and doubled his profits while turning the traditional "take/make/waste" industrial system on its head.

The company’s mission zero goal is to achieve total sustainability by the year 2020, described in Anderson’s book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. He passed away several years ago but his legacy of sustainability continues to grow.

Everyone can do something, whether on a large or small scale. That Johannesburg has run out of landfill, for example, needs to be taken up as a huge opportunity to radically change waste management in the city. This requires innovation of new systems, products and services that would necessarily introduce efficiencies and better use of technology and natural resources to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, and minimise adverse social and environmental effects.

There are many examples of what can be done in every home, company, city and country. There is also so much fascinating information about natural capital once you start delving. I recently came across an interesting blog by Miles King, who has been working in nature conservation in the UK for 31 years. He talks about the growing movement to push for natural capital to be given a financial value, so that it can be properly accounted for in the economy.

His standpoint, however, is that you cannot equate natural capital with rands and cents value; it has a much larger value. "Put a financial value on nature, and you put it in peril," he says, offering the following example:

"During the Obama administration, an assessment of the value of US wetlands was made, which concluded they provided $450m a year of benefits to the US economy. On this basis, Obama created a Waters of the US programme to support these wetlands. But when Trump took over, his ‘environment’ man, Scott Pruitt, ordered a re-evaluation and found them to be worth only $50m, far less than the costs to the economy of protecting them, calculated as $300m a year. At the press of a button, those wetlands suddenly had no (net) economic value."

King says that if natural capital were converted into financial capital, "one thing we can be sure about — it will not flow back to the ‘providers’ of the ‘services’, that is, nature itself. It becomes just another asset to be traded." He believes we have reached the point where natural capital is so undervalued and so important that we need "a new Green Watchdog" to balance environmental needs against the economy.

We’re all in this together and people such as King or organisations such as Global Footprint Network, together with many others, are proactively contributing to influencing policy and investment decisions and offering practical, well-researched approaches for better managing our planet’s natural resources and recognising our planet’s natural limits.

Skae is the director of Rhodes Business School.