By the middle of this century, humans will be using twice as much of the Earth's resources as the planet can renew. That's the alarming conclusion of the WWF's "2006 Living Planet Report."
The dire calculation is explained by Richard Mott, WWF's vice president for international policy. Mott explains that the fund measures how the Earth replaces the natural resources that people use.
Those resources include fresh water, timber products, fish, and soil-based agriculture. Given the current rate of human consumption of these resources, Mott says, in less than 50 years, humanity will be asking more of our planet than it can provide.
A Dwindling Bank Account
"We are actually using nearly twice the amount that the planet is capable of producing," Mott says. "And if you were to look at that in strictly an economic metaphor, we'd be drawing out of our collective [bank] account more income than the account is capable of producing -- and doing so by a factor of two."
Mott says people won't have to wait until 2050 for evidence that it has "overspent." He says there's already ample proof that we're living beyond our means today.
The WWF report says the human race more than tripled its exploitation of the Earth's resources between 1961 and 2003. And it warns of dire consequences if humanity's appetite continues to grow.
Therefore, the study concludes, we must begin changing our consumption habits now. But Mott stresses that some of the alternatives that first come to mind aren't necessarily viable.
No Easy Answers
As an example, Mott points to the current practice of mixing petrol with maize-based ethanol fuel as an alternative to straight petrol: growing maize makes an agricultural demand on the soil.
"There's no single silver bullet that will help us do that," Mott says. "And what we need to is a 100 significant, but smaller things. Now a shift to ethanol has some advantages, but if you tried to shift completely to ethanol from oil, you'd either have to displace an enormous amount -- probably a politically unsustainable amount -- of food production, or you'd have to convert millions of hectares of forest to agriculture to generate the ethanol."
But Mott says people can make important changes that are relatively small, inexpensive and, in many cases, comfortable to live with. If done together, he says, they could reverse the depletion of the Earth's resources.
"The things that you'd want to look at is more efficient use of fresh water; more fuel-efficient vehicles; better urban planning so that people live near where they work; more reliable mass transportation; better building codes that are more energy-efficient; greater use of renewables in your energy mix; recycling," Mott says. "Those are all the types of things that need to be pursued at a grander scale across all cultures, economies and countries."
WWF issues its "Living Planet Report" every two years. This latest report, which was issued on October 23 in Beijing, also includes a Living Planet Index that measures the diversity of living organisms on Earth.
This year's index found that the number of land-based species of plants and animals declined by 31 percent between 1961 and 2003. During the same period, it says, freshwater species declined by 28 percent, and saltwater species dropped by 27 percent.
The news, it seems, is as bad for animals as it is for humans.
THE FRAGILE PLANET: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, old environmental disasters have come to light and new ones have emerged. War, poverty, and weak central-government control have led to serious environmental problems from Eastern Europe to the Russian Far East. RFE/RL has provided extensive coverage of these important issues and of efforts to cope with them.