Today is Earth Overshoot Day, which means that even though it’s August, we’ve already used up more of the Earth’s natural resources than the planet can regenerate in a year; we’re running a massive ecological deficit, taking from the world’s marine and land environments faster than they can regenerate, and burning up more CO2 than the Earth can absorb. And that’s not all: Overshoot Day, which is calculated by Global Footprint Network, keeps getting earlier and earlier every year: In 2016 it happened on August 8, the year before that on August 13, and the year before that on August 19.
And next year it will likely be in July for the first time.
“Another way of thinking about [Earth Overshoot Day] is that we are essentially stealing from the future,” explained David Lin, Research Director at Global Footprint Network. “If we want to have some sort of intergenerational equity, we need to preserve and maintain the natural resources that we have now.”
How Bad is Our Overspending?
We’re currently using nature about 1.7 times faster than our ecosystems can regenerate. That’s like earning $50,000 a year, but spending $85,000 every year. In order to stay afloat we have to dip into our savings, which, if we’re lucky, we might be able to do a few times. But what happens if we do the same thing, year after year after year?
You get it.
“We’re trying to present the idea that…we live on a finite place on Earth, and there’s a finite amount of natural resources, or natural capital, which has a finite amount of regenerative capacity,” said Dr. Lin. “We look at fisheries, at cropland, grazing land, and built-up land…and right now, the biggest part of the footprint is the carbon footprint.”
Last year, we hit a new threshold: 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; that’s the highest level in recorded history, going back hundreds of thousands of years. As we all know (except the climate change deniers, I guess) this phenomenon has been driven by the burning of fossil fuels for power.
But, as Dr. Lin points out, one’s carbon footprint (the amount of carbon that your particular lifestyle requires) is just one of the pieces that goes into calculating our total ecological footprint. Earth Overshoot Day encompass everything we use from nature, including where we live, what we eat, and what we wear.
One of the best ways to visualize the idea behind Earth Overshoot Day is to look at the state of our fisheries.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global annual per capita consumption of seafood rose to almost 45 pounds in 2016, the highest number ever recorded. It shouldn’t be surprising that as the quantity of fish taken from the ocean has increased, the number of fish in the ocean has decreased. According to the United Nations State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, almost a third of all commercial fish stocks are currently fished at unsustainable levels, triple the level of the 1970s. And stocks of many large oceangoing fish like sharks, bluefin tuna, and swordfish have been reduced by up to 90% over the past few decades. We aren’t giving the oceans enough time to regenerate.
So, how did we get to a point where we are consuming our annual natural budget in just seven months?
The short answer is more people, in more cities, consuming more stuff. In the past 100 years, the global population has grown by about 300%, to 7.5 billion people. As this massive influx of humans has concentrated in and around cities, it has spurred rapid urban development, overcrowding, and a culture of consumption—all of which led to huge natural resource demand and equally huge amounts of waste. Every year, we produce about 420 million tons of plastic and throw out about 1.4 billion tons of garbage, more than the weight of 3,800 Empire State Buildings.
What Can Be Done?
The Global Footprint Network is focused on the four specific areas that they believe are most critical in improving sustainability: food, cities, population and energy. Through a combination of individual action and systematic societal change, the organization believes that we can make Earth Overshoot Day happen later and later each the year. Notably, moving the date back doesn’t have to mean less development, just smarter development; a transition to renewable energy, more efficient transportation, and sustainable agriculture all have huge roles to play.
Developing countries will need a fair amount of help in achieving these goals. Luckily, assistance for this was built into the Paris Agreement, with developed nations pledging to make $100 billion in climate financing available annually, starting in 2020. But as with many things climate related, Trump has trolled all over this plan; his most recent budget proposal called for eliminating all “payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.”
Still, some form of funding will likely continue, with powerhouses like China and Germany filling the empty U.S. seat.
“Our planet is finite, but human possibilities are not. Living within the means of one planet is technologically possible, financially beneficial, and our only chance for a prosperous future,” said Wackernagel in a press release. “Ultimately, moving back the date of Earth Overshoot Day on the calendar is the name of the game.”
You can calculate your ecological footprint at the Global Footprint Network website.