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South Africans use double Earth’s resources

Dr Jako Volschenk, Head of the MBA and Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB)

South Africans are consuming beyond the capacity of Earth’s ability to sustain us, using up resources at double the rate at which the Earth’s ecosystem can recover. And the shocking part is that we have been failing for 51 years.

Running at a deficit of -2.1[1], the country, along with the world population, is depleting the Earth’s resources faster than the planet’s ability to recover and sustain, and if we do not turn our deficit around, we need to accept that we will be the instigators of the first ever man-made mass extinction.

South Africa’s Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) falls on 4 July 2021 this year – the date which marks the point in a given year when our demand for ecological resources and services has exceeded what the planet can regenerate in that year.

It’s an urgent wake-up call for South Africans.

Dr Jako Volschenk, Head of the MBA and Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says nature replenishes what we consume every year – fish, forests, orchards etc – however South Africans have not allowed Earth to recover for more than 50 years.

“Imagine the earth is a company – let’s call it Earth Ltd – and we, as citizens, are the board of directors. Our natural resources represent our only income generating asset, a savings account that earns interest every year. In nature, that interest comes in the form of resources that grow from nature, such as some fish populations known to grow by twenty percent every year. If we consume more than the twenty percent, we are reducing the population to a lower level than what it was a year earlier, which in turn reduces the yield in the following year.”

He says the world population, as the board of directors, have been given the role of custodians of nature, but we are failing miserably in our duty to act in the interests of Earth Ltd.

“We have been running the company at a deficit for more than 50 years. Put differently, we have not had a positive cash-flow since 1969.  And year after year, we are consuming a bigger share of our declining pool of nature savings.”

Dr Volschenk says although the concept of using a company as an analogy to illustrate the point is useful, there are limitations when it comes to how Earth manages its bottom-line.

“With less resources, our future capacity for production is compromised.”

“Viewing natural assets as a savings account fails to capture the importance that nature holds for humanity. Everything we have ever made, and everything we will still make in the future, draws from the natural resources around us. With less resources, our future capacity for production is compromised.”

“In addition, when a company runs into financial trouble, usually it can be bought over by another company or the owners can take a loan from a bank. Earth does not offer a bail-out for us. We either have to turn our deficit around or accept that we will be the instigators of the first ever man-made mass extinction. We can’t be fired from our role – we are the only hope to turn the deficit into environmental restoration.”

EOD is calculated for all countries, and each country has its own tipping point at which the population is starting to consume its own ecological reserves. The point of overconsumption is determined by the ecological “interest” that is generated every year, and the rate of consumption.

“The pressure on Earth’s reproduction rate is closing in from all sides.”

“While overconsumption is the biggest driver, the world is also losing natural resources due to habitat encroachment, climate change, and ecologically damaging practices such as the use of pesticides. The pressure on Earth’s reproduction rate is closing in from all sides,” says Dr Volschenk.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that populations of wild animals have declined by an average of almost seventy per cent in the last 50 years[2], while other studies report that insect populations have declined by 70% in the last 30 years[3].

In some parts of China, fruit trees have to be pollinated by hand due to the absence of bees in the areas, which in turn is a consequence of pesticide usage in these regions[4].

So how do we turn this ship from its collision course?

Dr Volschenk says that understanding that Earth Overshoot Day is a result of undersupply and over-demand, provides two ways to move the date to later in the year.

“Managing demand provides the easiest opportunity to balance supply with consumption. Much debate exists between two camps – those that argue for reduction of population growth, and those arguing for a reduction in per capita consumption.”

“Global population numbers have doubled in the last 50 years[5]. Globally, we are still adding in excess of 80 million people per year, more than the total population of South Africa. Part of the long-term solution should focus on stabilising or even reducing the global population.”

For South Africa EOD was almost a month later in 2020 than the year before, providing strong evidence that reducing per capita consumption of products and services can be very effective to avoid the collapse of our ecological resources in the short term.

“Due to Covid-19, driving less, flying less and buying less accounted for much of the reduced consumption we observed in 2020 in comparison to 2019.”

  1. Circular economy: The circular economy can help reduce the need for virgin material. In circular design, products and services are not created with a linear lifecycle of a clear beginning, middle and end. The target is a closed-loop system that aims to minimise the use of resources and subsequently the creation of waste. It enables a system where products are reused, shared, repaired, refurbished, remanufactured and recycled within that circularity.
  2. Sharing economy: Better public transport and car-sharing services have much potential to bring down both the cost of transport, as well as the environmental impact. But the sharing economy can be extended to many other industries, such as buildings, tools, and products that we normally do not require all the time.
  3. Servitisation: Switching from an economy based on selling products to providing services, holds much potential. Imagine how producers of hot water geysers would change their production if they sold a hot water supply, rather than geysers.
  4. Flexitarian diets: The World Economic Forum reports that, at any point in time, there are three times more farm animals in the world than there are people, with many of these animals destined to end up as food. Contrary to popular belief, we have tripled the amount of meat we eat per capita in the last 50 years[6]. Switching to flexitarian diets can make a huge difference in our food-footprint. The flexitarian diet implies a vegetarian diet that allows a little bit of meat consumption. In the United Kingdom and Germany, one of every three people consider themselves to be flexitarians.  The reasons for doing so range from health to a strong movement towards considering animal welfare.
  5. Renewables and storage: The reduction in the price of renewable energy, combined with the improvement in battery storage technologies, have changed the electricity and mobility landscapes forever. While the world is unlikely to be rid of fossil fuel soon, some countries have already committed to have net zero carbon footprints by 2050. While this may sound far away, it is likely that this target will move closer as technology improves and awareness rises.
  6. Voluntary simplicity: The voluntary simplicity movement is rooted not in environmental ethics, but rather in positive psychology. The pursuit of material belongings drives many people into corporate jobs they dislike so that they can afford a new car and a big house that ultimately robs them from relationships and fulfilment of their passions. Voluntary simplicity does not call for voluntary poverty, but rather encourages consumption that is aimed at quality of life rather than quantity of material belongings.


[1] Ecological Footprint – Global Footprint Network

New study suggests insect populations have declined by 75% over 3 decades – CNN

4 Tang, Y., Xie, J.S., Chen, K.M., 2003. Hand Pollination of Pears and its Implications forBiodiversity Conservation and Environmental Protection: a Case Study fromHanyuan County, Sichuan Province, China. Unpublished report submitted to theInternational Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). (Accessed 1 February 2014)

(4) World Population Doubled in 50 years. And Will Raise Up +50% By the End of the 21st Century. | LinkedIn