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Sustainability: Not Living Beyond One’s Means

"Debt is the worst poverty." ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

Did you celebrate Tax Freedom Day on April 12? In case you didn't know, according to the Tax Foundation, that's the day Americans collectively earned enough money to pay all our tax obligations for this year.

Less-known than Tax Freedom Day, and certainly not a reason to celebrate, is Earth Overshoot Day, which last arrived on September 27, 2011. Figuratively-speaking, that was the day we began living beyond nature's means to supply us. How did we go into "nature debt?" Well, as there are no "nature banks" loaning us the natural resources we need to run our economies (indeed, to survive), we can only exceed nature's means by drawing down irreplaceable natural capital. In other words, we began depleting the world's bank account rather than living off of nature's interest.

Of course, there's nothing magical about last September 27. In reality, we have been collectively living beyond our planet's means for decades. According to the most recent Living Planet Report, "Humanity's Ecological Footprint has more than doubled since 1966. In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity used the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support its activities. Even with modest UN projections for population growth, consumption and climate change, by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to absorb carbon dioxide waste and keep up with natural resource consumption."

Of course, we're a long way from finding another Earth—even the smallest fraction of one—to satisfy our current lifestyles. So we continue to spend our children's inheritance, robbing from future generations to pay for what we cannot afford today. This is not a difficult concept, yet so many fiscal conservatives are having a difficult time extending sound financial practices to our treatment of the planet. Sustainability is just a big word for not living beyond one's means when it comes to nature's bank account.

How do we live off nature's "interest?" By investing in clean, renewable energy rather than burning fixed assets of coal, oil, or natural gas. By reworking our linear, throw-away economy into a closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle economy in which one operation's waste is another operation's raw material. By reversing population growth, ecosystem degradation, and species extinctions. By improving education, and raising living standards so that everyone on this planet may enjoy a decent "share of the pie."

Yes, these are difficult, large-scale, long-term solutions to thorny, prevalent, entrenched problems. But if we do not address these problems, we face a most disastrous foreclosure of society as we know it—nature does not do bailouts. I've written about simple things that we all can do to save the planet in previous blogs, but I think it is important for us all to keep the big picture in mind. Getting out of debt is never easy, but good planets are hard to find.

"Consume less; share better." ~Hervé Kempf

by Kyle Crider

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America. Email Kyle at