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Leaders wanted!

Humanity's footprint is crushing the earth

Claude Martin

Humanity's use of natural resources has exceeded the regenerative capacity of the Earth for the last two decades, and is projected to increase even further. If governments do not take action to halt this then - during the lifetime of our children - human welfare will go into decline.

One might assume that a government's responsibilities include taking care of the long-term prospects of both the society it represents and the world in which that society lives. Yet from the behaviour of many politicians, one could almost think their countries are on a different planet, so little bothered do they seem by the impact of their actions on their own and other societies.

A striking example of the narrow and short-term approach adopted by many governments is the way in which European powers support their fishing industries through massive subsidies. This practice has encouraged massive overfishing, which has led to the near-collapse of European fish stocks in recent years, notably in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea. Alright, so a preference for living today and not thinking about the future might be dismissed as a case of self-inflicted damage. Serves them right if they wipe out their fish, we might conclude. But the overfishing is not limited to European waters, as was shockingly demonstrated at a recent conference in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Senegal and other West African countries share one of the world's most productive coastal fisheries, thanks to the Sahelian upwelling of nutrient-rich waters off their coastline. For centuries the fish stocks off these shores have supported the economies and cultures of hundreds of artisan fishing communities. That, however, has all changed now.

As their own fisheries have gone into decline, foreign fishing fleets - Europeans amongst them - have increasingly been attracted to these fish-rich waters. Technologically sophisticated trawlers and unfair access agreements with African countries strapped for foreign currency have had a devastating impact on the fish stocks. Just how devastating was made plain by some of the world's most renowned fisheries scientists at the Dakar conference: the fish stocks of north-west Africa are as depleted as those of the North Atlantic, and the fisheries are no longer sustainable. This is a serious situation, threatening the development and food security of West African countries in a way that has no parallel in Europe.

'The ecological foorprint is already 20 per cent too great'

What the Europeans are doing is "exporting" the excess capacity of their vastly over-sized fishing fleet of roughly 95,000 boats. In propping up their own unsustainable fishing industry - at taxpayers' expense - they are in the process of destroying the livelihoods of African communities. If European governments do not act by reforming their Common Fisheries Policy at the end of this year, the socio-economic consequences will be disastrous, and not only in West Africa. "Stop overfishing - or fishing will be over", as the WWF slogan says.

But the rampant overfishing practised by industrialized countries - which destroys not only commercial species but also other marine life that falls victim as by-catch, including dolphins and even seabirds - is just one example of the way that people overuse the world's natural resources.

According to WWF's just-released Living Planet Report 2002, humanity's use of natural resources - the so-called Ecological Footprint - has exceeded the regenerative capacity of the Earth since the 1980s, and is now about 20 per cent too great.

The Ecological Footprint is the total area of the planet that humans require for agriculture, grazing land, timber production, marine fishing, and infrastructure, together with the area necessary for absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. At the current rate of consumption, the Ecological Footprint of all humankind will reach twice the regenerative capacity of the Earth by 2050.

This gargantuan over-consumption is at the expense of the natural capital of the planet - the forests, the freshwater ecosystems, and oceans - not to mention the livelihood of communities that directly depend on these resources. We can already see the effects: since 1970, the Living Planet Index - a measure of the health of our planet's ecosystems - has declined by about 35 per cent, with freshwater ecosystems being particularly hard hit, with a decline of 55 per cent over the last 30 years.

We live on a bountiful planet, but not a limitless one. Bringing the human footprint back within the carrying capacity of the Earth is the real challenge for the upcoming World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

The delegates attending the Summit should remember that the year 2050 is within the lifetime of most of our own children. Our over-consumption of natural resources today will affect the living standards not of an abstract "future generation" but of people we know and care about.

The delegates must also realize that, without vision on the part of governments and their active engagement in sustainable development, the whole system of peaceful coexistence may be at stake. Attempting to solve one's own problems by exploiting the environmental wealth of other societies cannot be the way forward.

Sustainability on a global scale will undoubtedly become a key issue, perhaps the key issue, of the coming decades. Governments who fail to see this, and who fail to redesign their policies appropriately, will risk not only the future of the planet - their own people included, of course - but they will also call into question the very purpose of government.


Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International, the conservation organisation based in Gland, Switzerland. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+10), will be a summit gathering from 26 August to 4 September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, of world governments, concerned citizens, United Nations agencies, multilateral financial institutions and other major actors to assess global change since the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), of 1992. In Johannesburg, the world will take a critical look back at UNCED, and should come up with a plan for what to do for the next 10 years to eradicate poverty and save our environment.


Suggested citation

Martin, Claude, 'Leaders wanted!', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5 July 2002.<>


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