WWF: human consumption is outpacing earth’s capacity

Humans currently consume 20% more natural resources than the
earth can produce, according to a WWF report. But the ‘ecological
footprint’ concept underlying the study is disputed by many

WWF, the global conservation organisation, has warned that human
consumption of natural resources is currently outpacing by 20% the
earth’s capacity to regenerate, ultimately putting humanity itself
under threat from ecological disasters such as climate change.

Presenting the fifth ‘Living Planet Report 2004’ on 21 October,
Dr Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International, said: “We
are running up an ecological debt which we won’t be able to pay off
unless governments restore the balance between our consumption of
natural resources and the earth’s ability to renew

The report is based on the ‘ecological footprint’ index, which
measures consumption of natural resources. On average, the report
says that each person on earth consumes 2.2 hectares of land when
there are only 1.8 available. Energy consumption is the
fastest-growing component of the ecological footprint index,
increasing by nearly 700% between 1961 and 2001, according to the
report. Waste, food, fibre and space needs for infrastructure are
other components of the index.

A separate index tracks populations of more than a thousand
animal species. According to this ‘living planet index’,
populations fell by 40% between 1970 and 2000 – an average of 1
species disappearing every 13 minutes, the WWF said. 

But the ecological footprint theory is disputed by some
specialists who argue that applying the earth’s carrying capacity
to human populations is flawed. Humans, the critics argue, “can and
do increase the carrying capacity of their environment to meet
their needs”, for example in the case of renewable energies.
Moreover, they say, carrying capacity has limited relevance when
resources can be traded to make up for their scarcity. Additional
uncertainties include calculation methods to evaluate land space
needs or the lack of distinction between land uses that are
sustainable and those that are not. 

Anticipating the critics, Tony Long, Director of WWF’s European
Policy Office said the Living Planet index is “not the last word”
but only a measurement tool comparable to the Dow Jones index for
the economy.

He criticised the EU for being “good at talking” about
sustainable development and “project[ing] itself as a leader” but
deplored progress was only “at a minimum”.

Mr Long called on the incoming Barroso Commission to put
sustainable development at the heart of its strategy and urged him
to use the €30 billion structural funds as sustainable development
funds. “We got all the words, we now need the political will”,
concluded Mr Long.

Further Reading

Subscribe to our newsletters