27/07/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 27/07/2017 03:59 SAST

We Are Facing The Ecological Equivalent Of Junk Status

South Africa’s recent downgrade means that investment into SA will dwindle. Interest rates will likely rise. Inflation will go up.

Andrew Biraj/ Reuters
A vendor splashes water as he sells vegetable next to a railway track in Dhaka May 29, 2014.

Junk status is real. It is not just a catchy phrase to be thrown around dinner tables or dismissed on a whim. By definition, it is the downgrading of a country's investment status based on the creditworthiness of the national economy. It is the likelihood of the government being able to repay foreign debt and the risk level for foreign investors. South Africa's recent downgrade to junk status means that investment into South Africa will dwindle. Interest rates will likely rise. Inflation will go up.

Could this be a wake-up call to take control where we can, to change our wasteful ways? For me, it is. We've previously experienced not having enough electricity during the load shedding saga of 2008. Then in 2016, due to the ongoing drought, every province in our country – except for one – was declared a disaster area. That one exception was Gauteng, though they've had their share of regular disruption to the water supply to hopefully have an adequate appreciation for the need to permanently change our wasteful ways.

Most of us will already be feeling the effects of junk status in what we pay for food. You've probably noticed an incremental price increase on regular shopping items. I know I have. Yet, too often we don't finish the food on our plate, we prepare more than we need or we buy more than we are able to use and so we let good food go to waste in our fridges and fruit bowls.

When we waste food, everything it took to make that food is wasted too –- the nutrients in the soil, water, the energy in the fertiliser, diesel and electricity and of course, the human effort. Nature's goodness literally ends up in the trash.

So, it is evident that junk status will have an effect on our agricultural industry and with knock-on effects to our natural resources that are the foundation of so many other industries. It is time for us to stop taking for granted all that nature provides for us. It is time for us to realise that nature is also on the edge of junk status.

Soon scientists will declare the annual point in each year when humans have "used up" the natural resources more than the Earth can replenish. Unlike economic junk status where investment will dry up because we cannot pay our debt, with nature we continue to withdraw, to take, to waste as if this line-in-the-sand date doesn't exist. As if we will somehow be able to repay this planetary debt one day.

From August onwards, we are officially taking more from nature than it is able to restore.

This junk status in nature is known as "earth overshoot". It is the ecological equivalent of downgrading an economy. And we are dangerously contributing daily to the downgrading of our Earth. Shockingly, this date in 2017 will be reached halfway through this year –- in week 26 –- on 2 August! The reason I know about Earth overshoot, living beyond the planet's boundaries as it's referred to in science-speak, is because I work for WWF. Yet, most of us –- too often myself included –- live beyond our means in what we take, and expect, from nature.

From August onwards, we are officially taking more from nature than it is able to restore. Alarm bells ringing for anyone else here? Are we listening? Are we really listening? I really started to realise that this was not a drill when the drought was declared in Cape Town earlier this year. But it's not just those in the Western Cape who should be permanently shifting their wasteful water ways.

For too long I've assumed water, and food, will always be effortlessly available –- food options always in my Woolies, water always in my tap! Yet I've let it run down the drain between hair washes and flushed away good drinking water without realising how simple it is to catch my shower water in buckets and use that to manually flush my loo!

I'd like to think that recognising our own daily junk status is the start to shift our wider wasteful ways, with the momentum to catalyse our country's economic rise to confidence again. The need to protect South Africa's natural resources has never been more urgent. We must value what nature does for us and not waste the food, fresh water and energy it so selflessly provides.

I'm realising many of my wasteful ways, and that junk status is here to stay for a while. So I must do what I can. Take action. Make changes. Innovate to turn my wasteful ways into opportunities. Because if there is one thing I've seen time and again from South Africans in tough situations, it's that we know how to innovate. From what we waste, we must innovate.

On 27 July WWF is hosting the 2017 Living Planet Conference, bringing together exceptional experts in the food, energy and water sectors to share solutions to the challenge of waste. Join the live-stream as we think differently, consume wisely and act collectively. Bookmark the page now.