Our Story

April 22, 1970

The ideas and values that motivate Colcom Foundation’s philanthropy can be traced back to a landmark of modern environmentalism - Earth Day 1970.
April 22, 1970

The First Earth Day

The first Earth Day represented a movement that propelled many cultural, regulatory, and legislative wins for ecosystems in the United States and around the globe. Stricter regulations on polluters, cleaner energy sources, more efficient technologies, and individual commitments to consume less or consume differently have helped many decimated ecosystems recover and have slowed the pace of environmental degradation.

HOWEVER

The environmental movement’s overall effectiveness has been consistently undermined by the failure to address one of the first Earth Day’s primary goals: the stabilization of population size both in the U.S. and globally.

Environmental Gains Are Undermined By Population Growth.

Continued rapid population growth has been a major factor in magnifying the ongoing extinction crisis, climate crisis, habitat destruction, overconsumption, and our generally oversized collective ecological footprint.

The U.S. Cut Per Capita CO2 Emissions By 35%

From 1970 to 2021, the U.S. successfully cut its per capita CO2 emissions from 21.33 metric tons to 14.04, a 35% per capita decrease.

But population growth overwhelmed per capita efficiency gains

Over the same period, though, the U.S. population grew by another 62% from 205 million to 332 million. The environmental gains from the 35% reduction per U.S. resident were overwhelmed by 62% more residents, resulting in a net increase in overall CO2 emissions between 1970 and 2021 of 0.67 billion tons (a 15% increase).

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A similar story can be told about urban sprawl, species extinction, nitrogen pollution, habitat destruction, and almost any other key environmental metric one may choose. Human population growth leaves the environmental movement continuously taking one step forward and two steps back.

The U.S. Has Been in Severe Ecological Overshoot Since 1970

Biocapacity utilization data tells an even more dire story as it calculates the total ecological footprint and is a much more holistic and realistic measure of sustainability than CO2 alone.
Definitions

Ecological footprint

“A measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management practices.” See the Global Footprint Network’s Glossary for more definitions: Glossary - Global Footprint Network

Ecological Deficit

“An ecological deficit occurs when the Ecological Footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the area available to that population. A national ecological deficit means that the nation is importing biocapacity through trade, liquidating national ecological assets or emitting carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere. An ecological reserve exists when the biocapacity of a region exceeds its population's Ecological Footprint.” – Global Footprint Network

The U.S. was consuming 227% of its available biocapacity in 1970. By 2020, that number had increased to roughly 240% despite massive efforts and expenditures to reduce it. Between 1970 and 2020, per capita biocapacity use decreased more than 20%, meaning 100% of the overall increase in biocapacity use (all of which was additional overshoot) was the result of human population growth.

1972
Available Capacity
Biocapacity Overshoot
100%
BIOCAPACITY CONSUMPTION

However, the overshoot calculations above assume humans have the right to appropriate all available biocapacity and leave nothing for other species. If we want to set aside 30% of the natural world for other species, as the 30x30 initiative targets, the U.S. was at roughly 341% biocapacity utilization in 2020. If we want to achieve the more ambitious goal of leaving half of nature for other species, the U.S. was at 478% biocapacity utilization in 2020.

How Much of the Natural World Should Humans Leave for Other Species?

The “30 x 30” initiative directs 30% of the United States be left for other species. “Half Earth” proposes half the Earth’s surface area be designated a natural reserve in order to save at least 80% of Earth’s species. But currently, here in the U.S. and around the world, the human population is consuming biocapacity at a pace that will leave virtually nothing for other species.

Business as Usual

Humans consume 100% of nature

30x30

Humans consume 70% of nature

Half-Earth

Humans consume 50% of nature

Total ecological footprint data provides the most comprehensive measure of sustainability but it can be difficult to visualize what these calculations mean for ecosystems in the real world.

Land use data indicates by 2020 the U.S. had paved or built over the equivalent of Montana, West Virginia, and South Carolina combined while 52% of the U.S. land base was consumed by agricultural uses and only 13% enjoyed any level of conservation protections.

Human population pressure and its associated effects have robbed wildlife of its natural habitat. The results are profound. The North American bird population has decreased from ten billion to seven billion in fifty years.

Wildlife populations in general have seen similar declines.

2.9 Billion Birds have been lost since 1970

Source: “Confronting America’s Wildlife Extinction Crisis,” Matt Lee-Ashley and Nicole Gentile, Center for American Progress, October 2015

Declining U.S. Wildlife Species

Percent of species that the IUCN lists as threatened or near threatened that have declining populations

Near Threatened
Threatened
Source: “Confronting America’s Wildlife Extinction Crisis,” Matt Lee-Ashley and Nicole Gentile, Center for American Progress, October 2015

Declining U.S. Wildlife Species

Percent of species that the IUCN lists as threatened or near threatened that have declining populations

Near Threatened
Threatened
Source: “Confronting America’s Wildlife Extinction Crisis,” Matt Lee-Ashley and Nicole Gentile, Center for American Progress, October 2015

Declining U.S. Wildlife Species

Percent of species that the IUCN lists as threatened or near threatened that have declining populations

Near Threatened
Threatened
Source: “Confronting America’s Wildlife Extinction Crisis,” Matt Lee-Ashley and Nicole Gentile, Center for American Progress, October 2015

Wild vertebrate animal populations have halved in the period the human population has doubled.

1970

Wild Animals
Humans

2017

Wild Animals
Humans

Source: WWF Living Planet 2016; United Nations Population Division

Weight of Vertebrate Land Animals

10,000 Years Ago

99% Wild Animals | 1% Humans