Nature’s Overdraft Notice: Earth Overshoot Day

By Joshua Nelson

At its core sustainability revolves around renewability. It can only be found in something that is renewable each year. For the human enterprise, sustainability requires us to use only renewable resources and energy, but not just use them, use them within their limits.

The world’s forests, for instance, can regenerate over the course of a year only so much. This amount is what we can harvest in a year. When we harvest more than this magical number, we begin to eat into the natural capital savings account. The more we take out of our savings this year, the less interest it will bear into our account next year — the less that can be renewed for next year’s harvest.

Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the ultimate anti-holiday. It highlights when we, as a species on this planet, have depleted a year’s worth of resources. It is the day we start running on red, consuming more than our fair share, taking out of our natural savings account, and eating away at next year’s supply.

Ecological Footprints Through History

As our economy has grown through history we have required more and more resources each year. We started eating away the planet’s able to sustain us on December 19, 1987 — the first Earth Overshoot Day. Since then our economy has been eating away at our future and our children’s future. Today we’re using 150% of the Earth’s capacity.

Since that fateful day in 1987 we’ve been pushing our natural accounts further and further into the red. It’s one thing for us to worry about our nation’s fiscal deficit, but that pales in comparison to our ecological deficit — every year we’re increasing the one deficit that truly matters to human survival. If we continue on this path it is project that we will use an entire planet’s worth of resources for a year in only 6 months by 2050. Of course, that’s assuming we still have a stable enough climate to maintain our consumption and production growth.

Your Ecological Footprint

I’m not a fan of debt. At its core debt is a wager on your potential to make money in the future — a bet that you’ll be doing better down the road and can pay off your excess now. Too often it simply builds up, because as our wages increase so does our excess. But financial prudence can reign in that excess. The problem with ecological debt? You’re wagering against the very future wealth that you’re depleting. It’s the only bank in town and it only has so much money.

If we can’t take out loans from our natural bank and we’re deep in the red, what do we do to get back in the green? (not black, green!) To ensure that humanity has a chance to maintain a stable, progressive, secure and just society on this planet we must recognize the conflicts of economic growth and ecological resilience. Money is worthless if we’ve wiped out all the crops. Increasing GDP doesn’t account for much if everyone is miserable and half the world is a desert.

Learn more about your ecological footprint at the Global Footprint Network.

See my cross-post on Steady State Revolution and out my guest post on Green Growth Cascadia about Earth Overshoot Day. Image Credits: Global Footprint Network.

Originally published in August 2010. Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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Post Growth Institute

Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).