Humanity’s ecological footprint is such that scientists have declared the dawning of a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Desertification, deforestation, acidification of the oceans, the massive erosion of biodiversity, the depletion of fish stocks and the multiple forms of pollution all count among the many forms of environmental deterioration caused by human activity—and which has considerably accelerated since 1950.

On August 2, 2017, humanity’s annual consumption of ecological resources exceeded the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year. This day, Earth Overshoot Day, calculated by the Global Footprint Network, varies from country to country and has been arriving earlier and earlier in the year since the 1970s. In 2018, France hit Earth Overshoot Day on May 5: if the whole of humanity were consuming at the same rate as the French we would need 2.9 Earths to make up the ecological shortfall (as compared with 1.7 Earths for the global average). Humanity’s ecological footprint is such that scientists have declared the arrival of a new geological era, the Anthropocene : “Whether it is solid, liquid or gas, concentrated or dispersed, human waste leaves traces in the water, the soil, in the air bubbles we find in ice cores; it has become the unarguable evidence, the tangible proof of the influence of human activities on the composition of the planet’s uppermost layer” (Baptiste Monsaingeon).

Ecological footprint, 2014

Source: Global Footprint Network, National Footprint Accounts 2018 Edition,

Comment: The Global Footprint Network, founded in 2003 by researchers in the United States, is a think tank network of 70 partners that uses multiple sources (mainly UN) to estimate the annual ecological footprint. The network also carries out awareness-raising activities (such as the Earth Overshoot Day campaigns – the date by which humanity will have consumed more resources than the planet can regenerate). The ecological footprint for consumption has become a benchmark for all environmental actors. This indicator is high in many countries, particularly the United States, Mongolia, Australia, the Gulf, Russia, etc. The vertical bars indicate the number of planets Earth that would be needed to support the consumption of each country.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin used a parable to explain the mechanisms of environmental degradation: a pasture available for everyone to use – the “commons” – becomes inexorably eroded by herdsmen who benefit individually from overgrazing without bearing their share of the collective costs. This is the tragedy of the commons, which poses the problem of “reconciling short-term self-interest and long-term collective interest” (Philippe Le Prestre). Although he proposed only two options for halting the degradation of the commons – either privatization or nationalization (later studies would point to alternative forms of regulation, such as polycentric governance) – Hardin shaped our current understanding of environmental problems. Environmental degradation depends on the institutional mechanisms governing modes of accessing and consuming natural resources. At international level, our global common goods – the oceans and the seabed, the atmosphere, the Antarctic, outer space – are governed collectively with a view to limiting degradation while simultaneously keeping sovereignty claims in check.

Desertification, deforestation, biodiversity loss

Environmental degradation caused by human activity has accelerated significantly overall since 1950. The battle against depletion of the ozone layer, via the Vienna Convention of 1985 and the Montreal Protocol of 1987, may have notched up one victory on the prevention side of the equation – but other forms of degradation are worsening, despite the mechanisms provided by international regulations.

Desertification – a phenomenon that can be natural or human in origin – is being exacerbated by overuse of soils and irrigation, by deforestation, industrialization, tourism and climate change. According to the UN, 12 million hectares of land and USD 42 billion in income are lost each year, despite the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), adopted in 1992. According to FAO estimates, there was a net annual decrease in forest area of 3.3 million hectares worldwide, between 2010 and 2015. Deforestation is not a new phenomenon: in 5,000 years, 1.8 billion hectares of forest have been destroyed to meet human needs for food, feed, fuel, fiber and forest products (the Five Fs). Two recent changes should be noted: since 1950, deforestation has primarily affected tropical forests while reforestation rates in temperate zones have been steadily increasing; and since the 1990s the private sector has supplanted the state as the primary actor of deforestation. In 2015, the FAO estimated that a slowdown of 50% in overall deforestation rates had been achieved during the previous 25 years – yet specific rates varied widely between different geographic regions, and tropical forests (which are carbon sinks, biodiversity reserves and the traditional habitats of indigenous peoples) fared poorly. Acidification of the oceans, a massive erosion of biodiversity, dwindling fish stocks and multiple forms of pollution will also feature among the many environmental degradations reported in UN Environment’s upcoming Global Environmental Outlook, to be published in 2019.

Cambodia and Paraguay: two cases of change in forest cover, 2000-2016

Sources: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, Global Forest Change 2000–2016, v1.4, http://earth; FAO,;

Comment: These two examples of deforestation, in Paraguay and Cambodia, emerged from analyses carried out by the University of Maryland using Landsat satellite images from 2000 and 2016. The dry forest of the Paraguayan Chaco in the country’s very sparsely populated west (0.5 inhabitants per km2) has the highest rate of deforestation in the world. Local actors, both Brazilian and international (the Moon sect and multinational American firms Cargill and Bunge), are developing soy farming (GMO + glyphosate) for the world market, as well as cattle breeding on farms of between 10,000 and 400,000 hectares (mauve rectangles on the map). Cambodia, a country with 75% of forest cover in 1990, had lost 25% of its forest by 2015; illegal logging, which is tolerated with police complicity, feeds a very lucrative traffic in tropical timber to Vietnam and China, which is doubled by public policies giving forestry concessions to large national and international groups to develop rubber production (50 to 100-km mauve patches in the Eastern part).

While debate persists on the relative importance of the various socioeconomic causes of environmental degradation, which are essentially interdependent and complex (weakness of institutions, poverty, overpopulation, capitalism, economic growth, trafficking and illegal exploitation, etc.), there is no doubting that their impacts are mutually reinforcing: deforestation contributes to climate warming, which contributes to desertification, which impacts agricultural production and biodiversity, and so on.

Living Planet Index, 1970-2012

Source: WWF, Living Planet Report 2016,

Comment: Founded in 1961, the WWF or World Wide Fund for Nature is one of the largest global environmental protection NGOs. Its Living Planet Index (LPI) is a benchmark. The LPI measures biodiversity by collecting data on the abundance of various species and the way they have evolved over time (14,152 populations of 3,706 species of vertebrae: mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles across the whole globe). The graph shows that from 1970 to 2012, global LPI experienced an average decrease of 58%, with, respectively, 36% in the marine environment, 38% in the terrestrial environment, and 81% in fresh water.

Managing global waste

Every year humanity produces more than 4 billion, nearly half of it generated in urban areas. By 2100, this figure could have. The Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth issued a warning about the unlimited exploitation of limited resources and the question of waste back in 1972. Today, management of the waste problem extends into the domestic space and supports an industry worth USD 433 billion annually, while 20 million people work in the informal recycling sector. Revaluing waste – a key factor in achieving political, economic, health and environmental goals – sits at the heart of circular economy or “zero waste” projects like the Sydney initiatives described by Michele Acuto. Transnational campaigns by environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF promote the 3Rs mantra (“reduce, reuse, recycle”) and highlight specific issues like the plastic waste ending up in our oceans, estimated at 12.7 million tons per year, or the illegal trade in toxic waste. As Baptiste Monsaingeon argues, waste often remains invisible to those who produce it: by isolating the problem of waste and focusing on its management and disposal, we are obscuring the political, economic and social choices that lead to its production in the first place.

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