Earth Overshoot Day Begs Hard Questions, and Your Time

Skoll Foundation
5 min readJul 31, 2019

By: Gurpreet Singh

“Pre-2020 climate action so important -IMG_1939” by John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This year’s Earth Overshoot Day landed on July 29, which marks the day we ate through a year’s worth of ecological resources — such as forests and fish — while just 209 days into the year. With 156 days left to feed ourselves, we’ll be hungrily dipping into next year’s budget, then into the following year’s, and so on. This is just one of many alarming statistics clawing for our limited attention these days. Despite how numb we may have grown — this should give us pause.

Source: National Footprint Accounts 2019, Global Footprint Network

In fact, the Global Footprint Network’s (2007 Skoll Awardee) accounting likely is a “a vast underestimation of the actual level of unsustainable planetary wreckage (Zoë Schlanger, Quartz).” GFN’s ecological footprint metric doesn’t reflect, for example, the degrading quality of fresh water bodies, soil, habitats, etc. But we can look to other sources — such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)’s Global Assessment — for more color. Though it is largely ignored, the world’s leading scientists are painting a disturbing picture of the future.

If we keep up our voracious pace, depleting the planet’s ecological reserves faster than they regenerate, we’ll soon hit bottom.

Theories and forecasts of what ‘hitting bottom’ might look like are now common. Some, like the Stockholm Resilience Centre in its “Transformation is Feasible” paper, even attempt to chart a path through our predicament. Others, like Jem Bendell (Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria) in his “Deep Adaptation” paper, have resigned themselves to the inevitably of near-term societal collapse — while encouraging others to find meaning in it. No one can accurately predict the future, but we know that we have already crossed, or are close to crossing, several social and ecological boundaries, and this trend is worsening.

Source: “A Doughnut for the Anthropocene”, Kate Raworth (2017)

Ted Howard (President, Democracy Collaborative) captured our predicament well in his spoken remarks (“Addressing the Systemic Challenge at the Heart of Escalating Inequality and Environmental Destruction”) to the Environmental Funders Network in 2018:

“The inconvenient truth is that we face a problem beyond politics and reform, beyond good projects and initiatives and campaigns — ours is a systemic crisis at the very heart of our 21st century political-economy. As the ecological rift widens, we must recognize that core features of the current system — unrestrained growth, measuring our success by the growth of GDP, ever greater concentrations of wealth and power, a commitment to short-term and even negative results to maximize the corporate bottom-line — are simply incompatible with a sustainable, just, and equitable future. We are trying to go up the down escalator, which is moving faster and faster against us.”

It is undeniable that “we are the first generation that has a clear picture of the value of nature and the enormous impact we have on it. We may also be the last that can act to reverse this trend. From now until 2020 will be a decisive moment in history (Living Planet Report 2018, World Wildlife Fund).”

Being alive today certainly feels strange. The cognitive dissonance inherent to living life-styles at odds with our life-support systems can be deafening. In the meantime, many of us are feeling pinched — unable to afford comfortable housing, subject to increasingly undemocratic regimes, or feeling socially isolated. Nafeez Ahmed (Author and Journalist), in his paper “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence,” makes the not-so-obvious connection: “the geopolitical … social, and economic remains indelibly embedded in the biophysical.”

Though our narrow experience of the world would suggest otherwise, we are rooted in a vast and complex ‘Blue Marble’ system that shapes our minds, behaviors, and societies, which are now starting to reflect the health of this system. Unfortunately, the fact that many of us are too overwhelmed to think and act on our predicament is a feature of that system, arising out of a tragic feedback loop: the less we act, the more our predicament worsens, and the more it worsens, the less we are able to act.

Source: David Sipress, The New Yorker

And yet we know that the only way out of our predicament is for more of us to think and act on it, deeply. Pushing Earth Overshoot Day further out into the year — by reducing consumption, mitigating waste, restoring the planet’s biocapacity, and, ultimately, decoupling human development from a growing ecological footprint — is physically possible. We just need to start seriously working toward it. Code for America’s (2018 Skoll Awardee) ethos is a good reminder: “No one is coming. It’s up to us. We don’t wait for the powers that be to ask us; we act. We don’t ask for permission; we find a way. We don’t talk change; we deliver it.”

This begs many questions that, arguably, those aware of the predicament are morally obligated to answer. Though each of us may pursue a different set of questions, here are 10 to get you started:

1. What is holding me back from thinking deeply about the predicament? How do I overcome these barriers?

2. How do I begin to understand the nature of the predicament? What is my learning agenda?

3. What are the personal implications of the predicament — for my life, family, and community — over the coming years?

4. What inspiration can I gain from those already thinking deeply about the predicament, such as the Global Footprint Network, Bioregional (2009 Skoll awardee), the SDG Transformations Forum, EDGE Funders Alliance, the Extinction Rebellion, the Global Commons Alliance, Humanity 2050, WorldLink, Civana, the Next System Project, Sphaera, Symbiosis, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, and others?

5. What will it take — realistically — to achieve a sustainable world of peace and prosperity (the Skoll Foundation’s vision), before it’s too late? What is my theory of change?

6. Who and what is in my circle of influence? To what end do I want to influence them?

7. How do I collaborate with like-minded others? How can I avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’?

8. How do I become the change I seek, by reducing my own ecological footprint? (calculator)

9. What system do I use to hold myself accountable? How do I act with the urgency and courage that this moment demands?

10. What first step, on this journey of thousands, should I take?

These questions can be distilled to the following: will you carve out the time for this? If so, please share your thoughts — simply send your name, email address, and as many words you can muster right now, through this form. Your information will be safe!

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