Humanity’s ecological footprint is crushing our planet

Our current use of natural resources in unsustainable, particularly the level of overfishing that is depleting the Earth’s oceans, warn recent reports by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Ocean Conservancy.

According to WWF’s just-released Living Planet Report 2002, humanity’s use of natural resources, the so-called ecological footprint, has exceeded the regenerative capacity of our planet since the 1980s. It is now around 20% higher than the Earth can support, and will reach twice the Earth’s regenerative capacity by 2050. Humans are, in effect, running up huge ‘overdraft’ with the planet.

This enormous over-consumption, argue WWF, is at the expense of the natural capital of the planet, its forests, fresh-water ecosystems and oceans, not to mention the livelihood of communities that directly depend on these resources. The constantly growing human population, particularly in the poor parts of the world where this growth is the most pronounced, will only increase the strain put on our planet.

The oceans provide a large proportion of oxygen we breathe and 15% of the animal protein we eat. In the US, one-third of the country’s gross national product is produced in ocean and coastal areas. But despite our dependence on these precious resources, little is being done to reverse their failing health.

The Ocean Conservancy, a US organisation which aims to inform, inspire and empower people to speak and act for the ocean, has just brought out a yearly assessment of ocean resources and ocean management called Health of the Ocean . According to the report, poor management has reduced many marine species to a fraction of their historical abundance-in some cases, near to extinction.

Humans are having a negative impact on the oceans in many ways, such as through pollution, introduction of non-native species and habitat destruction. The single most important impact, however, is overfishing. Not only are fish stocks around the world being depleted directly by fishing, but new fishing methods such as bottom-dredging, and involuntary bycatches – the best-known example being dolphins in tuna nets – are causing even greater damage.

Governments typically adopt a short-term approach to environmental issues and this is clearly illustrated by the massive subsidies which the European Union uses to support their fisheries. This practice has encouraged massive overfishing and has led to the near-collapse of European fish stocks in recent years. According to Health of the Ocean, the Europeans are now exporting their excess capacity to the waters of poorer countries and are thereby destroying the livelihood of these nations.

WWF suggests four main changes that must be made to reduce humanity’s ecological footprint: we must increase the resource-efficiency with which goods and services are produced, we must consume resources more efficiently and reduce the disparity between high and low income countries, population growth must be controlled and finally, it is imperative that we protect, manage and restore natural ecosystems in order to conserve biodiversity and maintain ecological services. “Sustainability on a global scale will undoubtedly become a key issue, if not the key issue, of the coming decade.” predicts Dr Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International.

Story by Amelie Knapp

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