In debt to the Earth, and we can't repay

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Humanity is overdrawn at the Earth's resource bank and is going further into debt every year, according to research.

Humanity is overdrawn at the Earth's resource bank and is going further into debt every year, according to research.

A detailed study by environmental experts shows that we are using more of the Earth's resources than is sustainable and have been doing so since the 1980s.

The international experts calculated that while in 1961 we were using only 70 per cent of the Earth's regenerative capacity, we reached parity by the mid-1970s and by 1999 were using 25 per cent more than could be regenerated. The 1999 figure means the Earth needs 15 months to replenish what humans take out of the biosphere every year. "We haven't reached the point of no return yet," said Valerie Kapos, a senior adviser at UNEP-WCMC, the United Nations' conservation monitoring project. "But we're heading that way and have been ever since we crossed that line [in the 1970s]."

The net effect is that natural resources are wearing out because they cannot be replaced by biological processes. That applies to such essentials as arable land, grazing areas, timber, fish, "infrastructure", and fossil and nuclear fuels.

The only solutions are to use less resources or to find "eco-technologies", which can help restock resources more quickly. "If you look at overfishing, we're having a frightening effect on the world's fisheries," said Dr Kapos. "That's a stark illustration of what this is about."

Although it was not possible to say when the Earth would hit the "point of no return", calculating that would be the group's next target, said Dr Kapos.

Promising technologies to reverse the trend include those to generate renewable energy from biomass or solar power because they do not require fossil fuels, which need land mass to absorb their effects. By far the biggest increase in demand since 1961 has been for energy, which has doubled, while demand for crop land and grazing land has remained almost flat. The researchers, who report their findings today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, include experts from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge.

Economists have long recognised that humanity is getting a "free ride" from the Earth, which provides resources worth trillions of pounds that nobody pays for.

The problem is that humans are not good at replacing what they take.

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