Earth Overshoot Day Reminds Us Why Sustainability Matters

Last week, a respected environmental research group announced that humanity is depleting the planet’s resources at an even faster rate than ever before.

The Global Footprint Network, an international think tank that charts resource consumption against the Earth’s capacity to replenish water, soil and other vital resources, calculated that Earth Overshoot Day took place this year on August 13, six days earlier than in 2014.

This means that we have consumed a full year’s worth of the planet’s ecological capacity in less than eight months. From now until the end of the year, it’s as if human systems are liquidating the stored up “principal” (which is a finite amount) rather than living sustainably off the “interest” generated by ecological systems.

As any financial planner will tell you, this is a recipe for eventual bankruptcy. Ecologists call this situation “overshoot.” The term refers to any species that uses its habitat’s resources at a faster rate than they can be regenerated, and if left uncorrected, it ultimately leads to population die-off, if not extinction.

At its website, overshootday.org, GFN explains, “Global overshoot occurs when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year.”

According to GFN, this “leads to a depletion of Earth’s life-supporting natural capital and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. . . . The impact of this ‘ecological deficit’ can be witnessed through deforestation, soil erosion, depletion of water resources and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Another way to understand this, says GFN, is that the world’s population is currently consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets each year. Obviously, using up anything more than the renewable resources provided by the one Earth we inhabit is the very opposite of a sustainable system.

A report at guardian.com points out that Earth Overshoot Day “implies the excess demands being placed on natural systems are doing more permanent harm that cannot be easily undone.” The report quotes GFN president Mathis Wackernagel on the challenge this poses: “Even though we are in a deficit equation we are not taking measures to take us in the right direction. The problem is psychological – somehow we are missing this basic physical law.”

Indeed, the psychology of our consumerist, growth-obsessed society causes us to dismiss these warnings and assume that through ingenuity and technology we can bypass ecological limits. For example, a recent interview on NPR’s “On Point” featured the promise of high-tech “precision agriculture,” which presumably will increase crop yields dramatically and feed the developing world’s rising middle class populations. We can have it all! Eight billion people can live our high-consumption lifestyle and the planet will magically comply with our demands!

What can we do about this huge global challenge? Sustainable Woodstock, like local citizens’ groups across the country and elsewhere, works on the premise that solutions must be rooted in our lifestyle choices and interactions in local systems and communities. We can each reduce our own contribution to resource depletion by making wiser decisions about transportation, home heating and electricity use, food and water consumption, and in what we buy and discard.

Many residents of this area enjoy an affluent lifestyle. Trapped in a social psychology that promotes conspicuous consumption, many who can afford to consume more may see no reason for moderation. But there is, in fact, an urgent reason—overshoot. Our species cannot exist indefinitely so heedless of finite ecological limits.

Join with Sustainable Woodstock in finding ways, in our own homes and community, to respect the Earth’s life-giving resources. We don’t have 1.6 planets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *