Don't Overlook Our Unsustainability on Earth Overshoot Day
August 1 marks “Earth Overshoot Day” when the human machine has used more resources this year than the planet can replace.
Many people mark Tax Freedom Day, on which the average taxpayer has worked in order to pay their share of nation's tax burden. In 2018, this day fell on April 19, after which U.S. laborers were free and clear to work for themselves for the balance of this year.
Less observed is Earth Overshoot Day, after which we fall further and further in resource debt. Earth Overshoot Day calculates the day humanity, on the whole, consumes more resources than the Earth can regenerate or regrow in one year.
The Global Footprint Network considers several objective criteria when calculating Earth Overshoot Day. It holds as an organizing principle that: "you can't manage what you can't measure.” So, it produced a scientific method to measure and track humanity’s ecological footprint. According to its website, it’s the only scalable sustainability metric for individuals, governments, and businesses to rely on.
Anyone can dive into the date in the Ecological Footprint Explorer, where the Global Footprint Network publishes the National Footprint Accounts, including the ecological footprint and biocapacity for over 200 countries and regions.
So, how are we doing? Not so well as on Tax Freedom Day, unfortunately. We’re in the hole. So, by August 1, 2018, we’ve already burned through all the resources the Earth can naturally regenerate this year. According to the latest data to calculate our collective run rate, it would actually take 1.7 Earths to replace the natural resources the human machine will consume in total for 2018.
So, starting August 2, we go further into ecological debt.
In the U.S., the average consumer uses a much higher share of global resources than the average global consumer. The Global Footprint Network publishes specific Country Overshoot Days, which places the U.S. overshoot day this year on March 15.
But according to 2017 Global Footprint Network data reported by the World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. is actually a close second to Australia by resource burn rate. The WWF report estimates that it would take ~5 Earths to support the human machine if everyone lived in the Australian-American mode.
There are less-intensive societies in the developed world, but they are also most behind the burn rate. The Global Footprint Network estimates, for example, it would take ~2.9 Earths to sustain humanity on the planet if everyone lived like the Swiss.
Over time, Earth Overshoot Day is trending earlier and earlier over time, as global population grows and incomes rise. Hundreds of millions of people are entering the middle class, which raises their quality of life but places increasing strain on the planet. When a family's income rises, for example, they begin to consume higher quality proteins—particularly meat. Meat, unfortunately, is very taxing on the planet because it takes orders of magnitude of inputs of freshwater and food to produce each pound of meat. Fish produces the best return, measuring only grain, at ~1.5 pounds of grain necessary to produce each pound of meat. Beef is the worst, at ~8:1.
In the very recent past, humans were in the green, just as on Tax Freedom Day. In 1970, humanity was practically in balance, with Earth Overshoot Day falling in late December. By 1997, the overshoot day ranged to late September. Today, August 1st.
North America is trending down a bit from the start of the century, which is good news. Notwithstanding steady population and a booming economy, Earth Overshoot Day is not running away from us.
We have the power to reverse the trend every time we choose to buy something, pick up garbage or work on the idea that can build greater sustainability into the world. Earth Overshoot Day has many great ways to make a difference.
Take this quiz to estimate your own footprint, then consider incorporating some of these steps to shrink it and tip the ecological scales back into balance. Commuting is a big killer for our collective carbon burn rate. U.S. EPA estimates that 1 in 4 greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. So, working from home isn’t just in vogue, it can help get humanity out of ecological overdraft. Still, transit is essential in modern life, so the Global Footprint Network also offers guidance for greening your commute.
Developing with transit in mind is another planet-saving, quality of life improving trend. EPA estimates a 32% to 57% reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) when development occurred on brownfield sites compared to greenfield sites. Lower VMT leads to a reduction in air pollution emissions and reduced congestion, both vexing problems of our time. And each acre of brownfield land developed saves 4.5 acres of greenspace, as well as a number of other Earth-saving benefits.
Transit is only one area where humanity is scoring major wins in the battled to get back into balance with our resource base. New technologies are emerging every day that are improving our ecological ledger and quality of life at the same time. We’re recycling more, wasting less and even making better use of spoiled lands by putting solar panels on them in the meantime—brightfield development is getting big.
But the battle for a sustainable planet will be won equally by actions both large and small. With every action, purchase or non-action, each of us places a little more stress on the Earth’s natural systems. Or a little less. Inescapably, we are all, each one of us, united in the work to pass on this beautiful little planet after we’re gone. Or make it a mess.
We've got the whole world in our hands. And the fate of all future generations to come on planet Earth.