Going Green on a Planet in the Red

Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year, but why?

This year Earth Overshoot Day is August 2. That’s the date when humans have used up all the resources the Earth can restore in one year. For the remaining five months, we’ll be running up a tab — and we’re not going to be able to repay that ecological debt when the bill comes due.

We started using up resources faster than our planet could keep up in the 80s, and the date has moved up each year. This year we’ll mark Earth Overshoot Day six days sooner than we did in 2016. And if we don’t start making some serious changes, it’ll come even earlier next year.

This is the American Dream, right? But that dream is an overconsumption nightmare.

We’re relentlessly pressured to consume with new technology debuting continually, fast-fashion trends that fall out of style as soon as they hit stores and single-use objects everywhere we look. The sizes of our homes are growing, with mini-mansions becoming the norm rather than exception. Even in the produce aisle we opt for the roundest tomatoes and apples that are just the right size, discarding anything that isn’t perfect. This is the American Dream, right? But that dream is an overconsumption nightmare.

We’re on this trajectory not just because we’re overconsuming natural resources, but also because there are too many people doing it. In the past 100 years alone the number of humans on Earth has doubled. Twice. And all of those people are vying for the same amount of resources, because we still only have one Earth. A growing population means we destroy wildlife habitats to build new homes, blast mountains to mine fossil fuels and exterminate any species that threatens livestock and crops.

As human population grows, wildlife populations have been halved. Our mad grab for resources make competition for the remaining resources even more difficult for wildlife. Species haven’t gone extinct this quickly in 65 million years. During last extinction event like this the dinosaurs disappeared.

The fastest-growing populations are often found in developing nations, where population growth only makes resource scarcity a bigger issue. And as these populations grow, the ecological footprint of each person actually shrinks. Meanwhile the United States, which only makes up only 5 percent of the population, can be held accountable for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t point the blame on the population growth of poor nations while the wealthy can keep living the way we do. But we can’t keep adding humans to the planet either.

Thankfully there are some real solutions to both problems. In the developing world some 225 million women want some form of contraception but are unable to access it. Providing widespread education and ensuring professional opportunities for women and girls lead to better standards of living and healthier families while also helping to lower fertility rates.

Photo credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

Yet we also must look for solutions to the problem at home. We’re driving climate change purchase by purchase and reducing our unsustainable demand helps to relieve that strain. And in the United States, where 45 percent of all pregnancies are unintended, the maternal death rate is rising and reproductive rights are on the chopping block, we must continue to work to broaden access to reproductive healthcare and contraception.

There is no single problem that caused overshoot, or that causes it to come earlier every year. Complicated problems have to have multiple solutions. If we want to move the date and push Earth Overshoot Day back to the end of the year where it belongs, we need to address population growth and reproductive rights issues in all nations. But we also need to address our material world, fixated on market growth and the next replaceable thing. And, maybe most importantly, we need to find a way to do both of those things while elevating the quality of life for those living in poverty and maintaining the high quality of life we have in developed nations.

Because everyone deserves more than just to survive — we should all thrive free from planetary debt.

Leigh Moyer is the population organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

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