Earth Overshoot Day

Print edition : October 03, 2014
The planet does not have the capacity to keep on satisfying the current rate of human demands on its resources, nor can it absorb the waste being generated.

AUGUST 19 was Earth Overshoot Day: an estimate of the moment in a 12-month period when humans have consumed more natural resources than the biosphere can replace and created more waste than it can absorb. To put it simply, in less than eight months of 2014, the annual supply of land, water and trees and the planet’s ability to deal with waste products, including carbon dioxide, have been used up. This means that humanity is already living off next year’s supplies, which in turn means that next year’s supplies will end even sooner than this year’s. No wonder Earth Overshoot Day is also called Ecological Debt Day.

Earth Overshoot Day does not follow the standard practice of having a fixed commemorative day and is more of a countdown. It was first commemorated on December 19, 1987, when humanity was 11 days in debt. Since then, the ecological debt has been accelerating. In 2000, Earth Overshoot Day occurred in October. In 2014, it has advanced by two months.

Global Footprint Network (GFN), a 10-year-old international think tank that works to “advance sustainability”, carries out the calculations for humans overshooting budgeted supplies. Using a novel resource-accounting tool called the Ecological Footprint, it “measures how much nature we have, and how much we use”. Conceived in 1990 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, the Ecological Footprint is now in wide use by groups as diverse as scientists, businesses, governments, agencies and institutions. A link on GFN’s website allows even individuals to monitor their own ecological resource use. The website explains the Footprint as representing “two sides of a balance sheet. On the asset side, biocapacity represents the planet’s biologically productive land areas, including our forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries. These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also absorb much of the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions. Biocapacity can then be compared with humanity’s demand on nature: our Ecological Footprint. The Ecological Footprint represents the productive area required to provide the renewable resources humanity is using and to absorb its waste. The productive area currently occupied by human infrastructure is also included in this calculation, since built-up land is not available for resource regeneration.” In simple terms, the Footprint “addresses whether the planet is large enough to keep up [with] the demands of humanity”.

The obvious conclusion is that the planet certainly does not have the capacity to keep on satisfying the current rate of human demand. Using the Footprint to explain the extent of humanity’s “overshoot”, the GFN draws the attention of governments, investors and opinion leaders and demonstrates to “the advantages of making ecological limits central to decision-making”.

It is no secret that the planet has a finite quantity of resources that are being used up faster than they are being replaced. Fifty years ago, most areas of the globe had more resources than were consumed. But now, 86 per cent of the people in the world live in countries with a huge ecological footprint, where the demands literally strip the country of its resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished. The GFN says that since the 1970s humanity has been in ecological overshoot and estimates that humans today use “the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.” Even a mild outlook indicates that a continuation of current population and consumption trends will mean that “by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two earths to support us”.

Although there should be no doubt about the validity or the seriousness of the reality of overuse, the question is whether governments and individuals will bother to take the issue seriously.

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