Home Commentary The U.S. is in Ecological Overshoot

The U.S. is in Ecological Overshoot

by George Plumb

According to the United Nations, the world population reached 8 billion on Nov. 15.. The United States now has a population of 338 million. When I was born in 1937 the world population was 2 billion and the U.S. population was 129 million.  What an incredible growth in such a short period of time.  Why is this important? We may be overshooting earth’s ability to provide resources to support us.

The U.S. feels like a totally different place now than it was when I was growing up. Now it is projected that the world population will reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2,100.  The United States is projected to grow by nearly 79 million people in the next 4 decades, from about 338 million to 417 million.

Every year the Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with an Earth Overshoot Day campaign, which attracts media attention around the world. Earth Overshoot Day is marking the date that humans globally have used more from nature than our planet can regenerate in the entire year. 

Earth Overshoot Day has moved from late September in 2000 to July 28 in 2022.

The combination of population size and consumption rates is having a devastating impact on all life on Earth in many ways. It is causing the 7th Great Extinction as more and more other species do not have a place to live. The world could lose more than a quarter of its forests for food production alone by 2050 to feed the growing human population.

Worldwide there are 40 people per square mile; in the U.S. it is 94, and in Vermont it is 64. Yet another important factor is the ecological footprint of individuals.  Ecological footprint is a metric computed by the Global Footprint Network, and is used to determine the impact humans are having on the environment in a given place or country. Ecological footprint measures the natural resources humans are consuming in the environment through activities such as forestry, farming, fishing, mining, and manufacturing. 

The United States ecological footprint is 8.04 acres. This means that every U.S. resident requires, on average, about 8 acres of productive land to sustainably enjoy an average quality of life. If you don’t have 8 acres of land, then you’re living off someone else’s land, and/or living off non-renewable resources such as petroleum or natural gas. Further, the U.S. ecological footprint is twice the biocapacity within our borders. This means that we are living off the biocapacity of other countries and/or living off non-renewable resources. This also means that the U.S. is in a state of ecological overshoot. 

For comparison the ecological footprint of the total Earth population is 6.7 acres of which 60% is carbon emissions. 

Climate change is a direct result of population growth. Global carbon emissions have more than doubled from 17 billion tons in 1974 when the population was at 4 billion. And a growing population is only going to make it worse as humanity will need nearly 50% more energy by 2050. And the U.S. with 4% of the world’s population has generated approximately 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Because of population growth we face threats such as wars over resources and conflict among people living in the same area.

We each have a responsibility to deal with population growth both on the individual level and in the larger community. I urge everyone to talk and act on population growth to the extent that they can. We need talk and action at the family, community, state, and national governmental levels.  This should include civic and spiritual organizations.

Noted Vermont climate change author and activist Bill McKibben wrote the book  “Maybe One: A case for Smaller Families” (Plume, 1999). He has been right on climate change; let’s follow his suggestions on family size.

George Plumb is a board member of Better (not bigger) Vermont and Buddhist Peace Action Vermont. In 2013 he initiated and oversaw the development of the “What is an Optimal/Sustainable Population for Vermont” report. He has devoted much of his life since then trying to call attention to the population growth problem. He lives in Washington, Vermont where he feels fortunate that thanks to a smaller population density back in 1968, he and his wife were able to afford a home surrounded by 140 acres of wonderful forested and open land where he spends much time.

Stories about Climate Change