This week the global environmentalist movement commemorated “Earth #Overshoot Day,” which marks the moment when the world population had supposedly consumed all the Earth’s resources allocated for 2016—fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, water and wood—and so began to “overexploit” the planet.
Each year, an environmental advocacy group called the Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculates the day when the year’s available resources run out and mankind begins overconsuming nature. In 2015, “Earth Overshoot Day” was celebrated on August 13, in 2000 it was at the end of September and now, in 2016, it fell on August 8.
“We use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, overharvesting forests and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester,” the group exclaims on its website.
“On August 8, 2016, we will have used as much from nature as our planet can renew in the whole year,” GFN announces.
According to a breathless article in the French daily Le Monde, complete with infographics, we would need 1.6 “earths” in order to sustain humanity’s current level of consumption.
Fear of consuming all the earth’s resources is as old as human population studies, with their most celebrated exponent—Rev. Thomas Malthus—having already laid out his apocalyptic theories in the late 18th century. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus described in now-familiar terms how population growth would soon exceed man’s ability to produce food, leading to mass starvation and wars.
Despite Malthus having been proved spectacularly wrong—since food production grew at a far faster rate than the population—Neo-Malthusian theories have emerged sporadically in the intervening years, with one of the most famous examples being Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 doomsday bestseller: The Population Bomb.
With its over-the-top forecasts of global disaster, Ehrlich’s book caused generalized pandemonium in the 1970s by creating fears of a global population explosion.
Ehrlich sold the world the idea that mankind stood on the brink of Armageddon because there was simply no way to feed the exponentially increasing world population. The opening line set the tone for the whole book: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”
Being a well-credentialed scientist—as a biologist lecturing at Stanford University—Ehrlich’s trumpet blare of the end times struck many as the plausible theory of an “expert.”
In the book, Ehrlich laid out the catastrophic future of the planet. He predicted that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s (and that 65 million of them would be Americans), that already-overpopulated India was doomed, and that odds were fair that “England will not exist in the year 2000.”
Needless to say, human history proved Ehrlich wrong as well, although many young people today still cling to the myth of overpopulation—testimony to the enduring legacy of a well-told lie.