Earth Overshoot Day and Pollinators

Australia’s Earth Overshoot Day happened earlier this week.

It used to be called Ecological Debt Day, involves a lot of math, and assumes that Earth’s glaciers, deserts, and oceans, are pretty much all the same thing.

The basic idea, that we shouldn’t waste resources, isn’t silly, and I’ll get back to that.

Some other scientists say that we should pay attention to pollinators. I think they’re right.

  1. Global Footprint Network’s Earth Overshoot Day
  2. Pollinator Peril — or — the Bats and the Bees

Ehrlich, Yeats, and Me

Taking the Bible seriously, including Revelation 6:48, isn’t even close to thinking I can second-guess God the Father; and I talked about that last Sunday. (August 7, 2016)

Tightly-wound preacher-prognosticators aren’t the only folks with doomsday predictions and dire forebodings:

“…in ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish….”
(Paul Ehrlich, on first Earth Day, (1970))

“…By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people….”
(Paul Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology (September 1971))

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….”
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats (1920))

In fairness, William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) lived in a particularly unsettled chapter of humanity’s story. I’ll get back to Yeats, Lovecraft, and getting a grip: but not today.

Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” came out while I was in high school, and Earth Day started about the same time I entered college. I took environmental concerns seriously then, and I still do. The latest crisis du jour, not so much.

I do, however, realize that the boy who cried wolf could be right. Occasionally.

Painfully-pious crepe hangers notwithstanding, gloominess is not next to Godliness. We’re supposed to desire happiness, and hope is a virtue. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 33, 1718, 1817)

I suspect that some doom and gloom has roots in the fashionable melancholy that’s been “…an indispensable adjunct to all those with artistic or intellectual pretentions…” off and on for the last five centuries.1 And that’s another topic.

Hydraulic Mining

(from the United States Library of Congress, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
“The Monitor.” Hydraulic mining for gold in California. (The Century Magazine; 1883 Jan., p. 325)

Romans called their hydraulic mining tech “ruina montium,” “the collapse of the mountains,” or “wrecking of mountains.” Two millennia later, Las Médulas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we’ve learned to be a bit more careful.

By the 1860s, the California Gold Rush was in progress. Folks were reducing hills to slurry with high-pressure water jets, extracting gold, and sending the rest downstream.

It was very profitable, until folks living and farming in the Sacramento Valley hired lawyers.

Several lawsuits and an act of Congress later, Americans had a new set of rules that allowed hydraulic mining — under better-controlled conditions. We’re still fine-tuning our environmental rules and policies, and expect that the process will continue as long as this country is around.

Northumbria’s Environmental Activist: St. Cuthbert

St. Cuthbert lived around the time Li Yuan became Emperor Gaozu of Tang and Harsha reunited a sizable fraction of the Gupta Empire.

Cuthbert lived in the Kingdom of Northumbria, that’s now part of southeastern Scotland and northeastern England.

His connection to this ‘environmental’ post is that he set up laws protecting the breeding grounds of various birds on the Farne Islands. That’s about 13 and a half centuries back now.

The birds are still there, and the eider duck is called the cuddy duck to this day in Northumberland.2

Comets, Malthus, and the Green Revolution

There’s good reason for keeping track of comets and asteroids.

Impact events occasionally coincide with an extinction event like the one that killed non-avian dinosaurs, but scientists still don’t have enough evidence to show cause-and-effect.

Even so, if a 10-kilometer-wide hunk of rock hit Earth today, it would do considerably more than disrupt the Rio Olympics.

Stuff like the Chelyabinsk meteor and the whatsit that knocked down trees near Tunguska happens much more often, but isn’t nearly as disruptive.

The 1857 ‘destroyer’ comet in that caricature might have been 6P/d’Arrest — or maybe not. Either way, Earth was still around in 1858, and wasn’t fazed by Hally’s Comet in 1910.

Our planet passed through the comet’s tail, that time, with the usual results:

“…The 1910 pass of Earth was especially close and, thanks to expansive newspaper coverage, eagerly anticipated by the general public. In fact, Earth’s orbit carried it through the end of the comet’s 24-million-mile-long tail for six hours on May 19, earning the story the day’s banner headline in The New York Times.

“While most reporters of the day turned to astronomers to get the facts straight, the yellow press chose to pursue the story in more fanciful ways, helping to fuel the fears of the impressionable that the end of the world was nigh. Despite some published reports leading up to the event, the comet’s tail did not contain poisonous gases, and there was never any danger of a celestial collision, either….”
(“May 19, 1910: Halley’s Comet Brushes Earth With Its Tail,” By Tony Long, Wired (May 19, 2009))

Today’s “yellow press” is the sort of “FBI CAPTURES BAT CHILD!” thing you’ll see in supermarket checkouts: and it’s as fanciful as ever. My opinion.

An — imaginative? — approach to science shows up in serious journalism, too. Happily, I’m not a reporter. I don’t have an editor telling me which stories to cover and how to cover them, and I’ve wandered off-topic.

Decades before Ehrlich’s famous book, “The Population Bomb,” hit the shelves; Fairfield Osborn, Jr. wrote “Our Plundered Planet;” and Thomas Malthus beat them both by 150 years: 2

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
(“An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Thomas Malthus (1798))

About 1,000,000,000 folks were alive then, many of them none-too-well-fed. Japan was recovering from the Great Tenmei famine, India’s Chalisa famine was over, with the Doji bara famine on its way.

Meanwhile, rinderpest was killing about 90% of Ethiopia’s cattle, while locusts were eating their crops, and cholera — they were not having a good time.

As of March 2016, I had about 7,400,000,000 neighbors.

Why didn’t we all die horribly of starvation and/or disease around 1800, or in Ehrlich’s environmental apocalypse?

Basically, because folks kept acting like humans. We developed new technology: the 20th century Green Revolution, for example.3

Like I keep saying, science and technology aren’t transgressions; they’re tools We’re supposed to use our brains, learn about the universe, and use that knowledge. (Catechism, 154159, 22922296)

Sane Environmentalism

I don’t miss the ‘good old days:’ seeing house-size gobs of suds floating down the Mississippi; and a year when my eyes stung, except on Sundays, when the city’s air cleared up.

I was already concerned about pollution, wildlife management, and other environmental issues, by the early 1970s.

At the time, I was glad that environmental awareness was spreading; and thought that some ‘environmentalists’ had more enthusiasm than good sense. I’m still glad that more folks started ‘thinking green;’ and think that Captain Planet helped make environmentalism look silly.

Sadly, some folks still seem to have learned their facts about science and ecology by watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Tentacles, and The Swarm.

The good news is that some scientists have apparently realized that an ecosystem that’s survived at least 3,700,000,000 years is hardly “fragile.”

A run of some 3,700,000,000 years, give or take a few hundred million, isn’t bad for life on a planet orbiting a slightly variable star: despite occasional comet and asteroid impacts, regional volcanic activity, and epochs of continental glaciation.

Other scientists, however, seem to be taking their cues from Revenge of the Creature and C.H.U.D.:

“Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to ‘save the planet’ and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.

“Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as ‘the wakened giant’ and ‘the ornery beast’, a planet that is ‘fighting back’ and seeking ‘revenge’, and a new era of ‘angry summers’ and ‘death spirals’….”
(Clive Hamilton, The Conversation (May 27, 2014))

I appreciate that sort of enthusiasm, and think that (some) environmental concerns are sensible. Fearing the wrath of an angry planet: not so much.

God’s Property, Our Responsibility

As a Catholic, concern about the environment isn’t an option: it’s required. Seeing this universe as beautiful, good, and our responsibility, is part of my faith:

The world doesn’t belong to humanity. It’s God’s property: we’re just stewards, responsible for managing the place. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2456)

That responsibility includes using this world’s resources wisely, showing concern for our neighbors and future generations. (Catechism, 2415)

1. Global Footprint Network’s Earth Overshoot Day

(From ESA, via NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Earth, seen from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. (November 12, 2009))

It’s official: We’re wasting our natural resources faster than ever before
Gavin Fernando, (August 9, 2016)

HAVE you heard of ‘Earth Overshoot Day’? Spoiler alert: it was yesterday.

“No, this isn’t an event that warrants celebration. To the contrary, the closer to the beginning of the year this day occurs, the more concerned we should be.

“Its timing in 2016 has environmental scientists worried about the consequences of how fast we’re burning through the planet’s natural resources.


“Earth Overshoot Day marks the point in the year where we run out of our ‘allocated’ supply of natural resources.

“The Global Footprint Network (GFN), an organisation partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature, produced the results.

“To calculate the date for Earth Overshoot Day, it crunched United Nations data on thousands of economic sectors such as fisheries, forestry, transport and energy production….”

Each Australian uses 9.3 hectares of Earth’s surface: according to the Global Footprint Network, or GFN. As for the GFN’s assertion being “official:” the outfit’s listed as a charitable non-profit think tank in the United States, Belgium and Switzerland.

I assume that the folks who run the GFN are sincere, and really want to help:

“We are an international think tank that provides Ecological Footprint accounting tools to drive informed policy decisions in a resource-constrained world. We work with local and national governments, investors, and opinion leaders to ensure all people live well, within the means of one planet.”
(Global Footprint Network)

Let’s look at those numbers.

Gavin Fernando’s article included that ‘how many Earths’ infographic, and GFN’s assertions about how big a piece of Earth’s resources folks in these countries consume each year:

  • China
    4.8 billion global hectares
  • United States
    2.6 billion global hectares
  • Australia and Iran
    210 million global hectares each

A hectare is 10,000 square meters, 1/100th of a square kilometer. That’s roughly the size of an international rugby pitch, Trafalgar Square, or a square centered on the Statue of Liberty‘s base.

“…But on a per capita basis, Australia’s contribution to the problem is much more dire.

Australia has one of the world’s largest ecological footprints per capita, requiring 9.3 global hectares per person. The only country worse than ours is Luxembourg. China came in at 52nd….”
(Gavin Fernando,

Earth is a pretty big place, with 510,072,000 square kilometers/196,940,000 square miles: 29.2% land and 70.8% water.

That’s 51,007,200,000 hectares total: 14,894,000,000 land and 36,113,200,000 water.

I’m assuming that Mr. Fernando’s “billion” is 1,000,000,000, not the long scale billion, and that’s yet another topic.

Hectares, Global and Otherwise

(From Ali Zifan, with data from CIA World Factbook, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(World population, 2014)

GFN says Americans use the equivalent of 2,600,000,000 global hectares each year.

Since Earth only has 51,007,200,000 hectares total and my country’s 323,425,550 population is only about 4% of the world’s 7,343,330,000 current residents, I figured that means we consume about 5% of the world’s resources.

That doesn’t seem so bad, but the GFN’s global hectare isn’t your ordinary hectare.

It’s “… a measurement unit for quantifying both the ecological footprint of people or activities as well as the biocapacity of the earth or its regions. … Examples of biologically productive areas include cropland, forests, and fishing grounds; they do not include deserts, glaciers, and the open ocean….” (Wikipedia)

By their standards, Earth has around 11,300,000,000 billion global hectares: roughly 1.8 global hectares per person in 2004.

Again by their standards, the 4% who live in my country use roughly 23% of our planet’s resources.2 That sounds like a problem.

Earth has Oceans

(From CIA World Factbook, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth’s Pacific, Atlantic, an Indian Oceans)

On the other hand, I’m a tad dubious when experts ignore the 70.8% of my planet that’s under water.

Very few humans live on the “open ocean,” but it is far from being a desert.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that marine fisheries caught 90,064,000 tonnes of assorted fish, molluscs, and other critters, in 2007; compared to the 10,035,000 tonnes caught from inland fisheries.2

A growing fraction of that catch is from aquaculture: “farming” fish and other critters. We’ve been doing it for millennia, and have been getting much more efficient lately.1

2. Pollinator Peril — or — the Bats and the Bees

(From Brian Cutting, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Pollinators are under threat at a global scale”
(BBC News))

Action needed to ‘future-proof’ pollinators
Helen Briggs, BBC News (August 9, 2016)

International scientists are calling for action to ‘future-proof’ the prosperity of pollinating insects, birds and mammals.

They say agricultural expansion, new pesticides and emerging viruses present the biggest risks in coming decades.

And the bats that pollinate plants in tropical and desert climates need legal protection, they report in PeerJ.

Some 35% of global crop production and more than 85% of wild flowering plants rely to some degree on pollination.

The research took a horizon-scanning approach to identify future issues of concern over the next three decades…..”

I’ve heard and read that bees were going extinct for years.

I’ve also heard and read that phencyclidine (PCP) and formaldehyde are the same thing, and that we should wear tin foil hats to keep the CIA from reading our minds. Then there’s “Reefer Madness,” and I talked about that last month. (July 10, 2016)

Where was I? Pollinators, PCP, tin foil hats. Right.

Having noticed the four horsemen’s marked disinclination to mount up; despite decades of periodic predicted apocalypses (yes, it’s a real word), faith-based and secular — try saying that fast, five times — I figured the recurring ‘dead bees’ story might or might not be real.

But I decided to not fret about it.

Then I learned that professional apiarists, beekeepers, were having trouble keeping their hives alive.3

That’s a problem for apiarists, and anyone who likes honey.

The good news is that we know a great deal more than we did a few decades ago, and may be able to do something about the situation before it becomes a huge crisis.

It’s Thursday evening as I write this, so I’ll just put links to a few resources at the end of this post,4 and skip lightly over what I think are common-sense ‘to-do’ items.

The seven species of honey bees are the apiarists’ traditional source of honey, but they’re by no means the only pollinators.

Since a great many folks like honey, I figure that studying honey bees with a view to making them more disease-resistant, and developing other honey-making insects into effective commercial producers makes sense.

So, I think, does remembering that bees aren’t the only pollinators around. A remarkable number of birds and mammals carry pollen, including some fruit bats. The latter can be pests, since they eat fruit that we want: but maybe that’s worth the annoyance, if they also pollinate the trees.

I’ve written about animals, being human, and using our brains, before:

1 From “The Elizabethan Malady: Melancholy in Elizabeth and Jacobean portraiture,” Roy Strong; via Melancholia, Art movement. (Wikipedia)

2 St. Cuthbert, Malthusianism, and all that:

3 Pollinators, background:

4 Earth Overshoot Day and related topics:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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18 Responses to Earth Overshoot Day and Pollinators

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    What? “Decades before Ehlerich’s famous book, Fairfield Osborn, Jr. wrote “Our Plundered Planet, and Thomas Malthus beat them both by 150 years”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Naomi Gill, wow. I really missed that one. Found and fixed. Thanks!

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