Wednesday August 2 was not a day to celebrate because, as the Earth Overshoot Day website explains, it marks the turning point when we will have used more of the Earth’s resources than the planet can renew in the whole year.
The capacity to renew what we have taken the preceding year is the definition of sustainability. To be facing the Climate Clock and the Doomsday Clock while recognizing that we are living unsustainably means that we are knowingly using up the biological legacy that belongs to the next generations.
To meet current demands for food and energy in sustainable ways would now require 1.7 Earths.
Using statistics collected by the United Nations and various other agencies, the Global Footprint Network marks this as the earliest overshoot date yet. You can use the mobile-friendly personal footprint calculator to get a sense of what counts in your lifestyle as a contribution to this trend. But be forewarned: North Americans use far more energy and other resources than people in many other regions of the world. The exercise may be therapeutic, because there are many things we can do about this trend.
The very idea of a “carbon footprint” came from University of British Columbia ecologist William Rees. His 1996 book, Our Ecological Footprint, was co-written with his student, Mathis Wackernagel, who has since founded the Global Footprint Network to produce research data about the effects we are having on our finite planet.
Andrew Simms of the U.K.’s New Economics Foundation conceived Earth Overshoot Day in partnership with the Global Footprint Network. The first campaign was in 2006, and the following year, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) joined forces with them. Conservation is the rudder that steers their mission.
The Global Footprint Network attributes overfishing, over-harvesting of forests, and putting more carbon dioxide into the air than can be sequestered in the natural sinks of forests and oceans, to the August 2 pivot away from Earth’s capacity.
“Impacts of ecological overspending are apparent already in soil erosion, desertification, reduced cropland productivity, overgrazing, deforestation, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse and increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere,” the website notes. “Natural capital constraints also pose a threat to economic performance and economic stability.” And climate change is the most consequential result.
According to the Network, 60 percent of the total human ecological footprint comes from our use of ancient carbon and cement production. Since 1970, our carbon footprint has more than doubled.
But Wackernagel is optimistic that we can live within the means of one planet. “It is technologically possible, financially beneficial, and our only chance for a prosperous future.”
He notes that solutions are located in four domains in particular: cities, population growth, energy, and food. Twenty-six percent of our global footprint arises from food production.
Since animal agriculture requires exceedingly more resources of water, land, feed, transportation, medicines, and offal processing, than growing plants, the simple calculus of removing industrial-raised animals from the human food chain—or even reducing our consumption of meat and animal products—decreases our carbon footprint. An Oregon State University research paper claims that, “If Americans ate beans instead of beef, the US could meet its 2020 greenhouse emissions goals, even if the country did little else and if people continued to eat other animal products.”
To put this claim in perspective, it is worth noting that 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of Earth is used for grazing livestock. In all, almost a third of the land on Earth is used to produce meat and animal products (James Hamblin, the Atlantic, Aug.2, 2017).
The waste of food is a problem world-wide, and in the US, it is estimated that 40% of the food produced for human consumption is wasted.
Population growth drives consumption of resources. The freedom of females to choose if and when to reproduce is the pivotal factor in this planetary problem, and there is little doubt among serious researchers in this area that educating girls and providing safe, effective, and affordable family planning, is an essential part of the solution.
Urbanites will make up 70-80% of human habitats by 2050. In this light, energy efficiencies are essential in all infrastructure, including buildings and transportation. This must be the decade that ends fossil fuel consumption, and harvests only renewable resources.
Wackernagel admits the calculations are only as good as the available data, but argues that it remains a useful way to put our unsustainable ways in perspective. We can no longer expect constant economic growth on a finite planet. If we overshoot the planet’s capacity for annual renewal, we are shooting ourselves in both feet. And we are standing on the only planet we have.
[Factual contributions to this article come from the David Suzuki Foundation, Sr. Ed.Ian Hanington).
Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.