Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Happy 'Earth Overshoot Day,' aka 'Let's Stop Living Beyond Our Means, Humanity Day'

It's August 1, 2018, and besides being completely astounded that the summer has flown by and I need to register my kids for school tomorrow, I'm utterly amazed that it's already Earth Overshoot Day.

What is Earth Overshoot Day, you ask? Well, that's the sad and sorry day that we humans have officially used more resources than our poor planet can replenish for the year. Or as stated more precisely and academically on the Earth Overshoot Day web site,

"Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. We maintain this deficit by liquidating stocks of ecological resources and accumulating waste, primarily carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Earth Overshoot Day is hosted and calculated by Global Footprint Network, an international think tank that coordinates research, develops methodological standards and provides decision-makers with a menu of tools to help the human economy operate within Earth's ecological limits.

To determine the date of Earth Overshoot Day for each year, Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of that year that Earth's biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity's Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet's biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity's Ecological Footprint (humanity's demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:

(Planet's Biocapacity / Humanity's Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day"

Whichever explanation you prefer, the whole thing frankly sucks. Put slightly differently, in 2018 we'll use the equivalent of 1.7 Earth's worth of resources to support human civilization. As a species, we're collectively living well beyond our means--I say collectively, because of course there are plenty of people in this world who barely have access to enough resources to survive, so it's not as if each and every one of us as individuals is behaving recklessly here. But our collective impact and demand for the limited resources available is out of control.

This is not a new phenomenon, alas, but this year we have reached the earliest collective Earth Overshoot Day ever. Check out our "progress" in terms of consumption of resources since humans first started overshooting Nature's annual budget around 1970:

As I said, this is the earliest collective overshoot day. Some countries (like mine, the United States of America) clearly consume more than others. So the Global Footprint Network has also calculated when Earth Overshoot Day would occur if the entire human population of Earth consumed as much as the population of each given country. Those figures are called Country Overshoot Days. Here's a graphic displaying those dates for 2018:

If it's hard for you to read, you can check out a larger version and associated data at Let me just point out that if everyone consumed the way we do in the US, Earth Overshoot Day would have happened way back on March 15th. 😒 Our consumption is outpaced only by that of the United Arab Emirates, Luxembourg, and Qatar (so take whatever incredibly small comfort you can from that).

If you're not depressed enough already, you can use the Global Footprint Network's calculators to determine your "personal overshoot day"--how many Earths would we need if everyone lived their lives like you? You don't have to show anyone your results. But it may get you thinking about what you might do to reduce your level of consumption.

And that's what all this information, and this post, is really about, rather than trying to make you feel guilty (although it sure does that effectively--I feel guilty, don't you?). It's about giving you a visual, relatable way to understand big concepts like global resource consumption, and hopefully be inspired to act in some small way. Things like sustainability and waste reduction can be abstract, and when a waste reduction and reuse advocate like me starts spouting facts and figures or talking about some case study of horrific resource depletion or pollution happening on the other side of the planet from you, even if you care in the moment and feel empathy for those directly impacted, it's hard to maintain that level of concern or understand how all of it effects you, because the impact isn't direct and the price paid isn't immediate. That's normal. We all have coping mechanisms to keep from being overwhelmed. The trouble is, those mechanisms can be too effective and numb us into inaction. Or maybe they aren't effective and we do get overwhelmed, and then we don't act because we have no idea where or how to start in order to improve the situation. But we have to act. All of us. In whatever small way we can, so that we can stop "drawing down the biosphere's principal rather than living off its annual interest."

So, what can we do? You already know and probably learned it in elementary school. "Reduce, reuse, recycle." Consult the EPA's Waste Management Hierarchy.

Think about ways to reduce the amount of resources you consume. Maybe you turn off that extra light which you don't need to have on. Maybe you refuse products offered that you don't need, especially if they're meant to be disposable (think of all the news lately about companies eliminating their use of single use plastic straws). Find some small way you can reduce your consumption and do it. And then think of another way, and do that. Repeat as you're able, a little bit at a time. It really does get easier to do with practice, and it usually saves you money too. The entire focus of this blog is reuse--and that's one of the best ways to reduce consumption. If resources have already been extracted from the environment and/or human labor has already been spent on creating a product, then those materials and products should be used for as long as possible, as many times as possible in their current form, to avoid the need to extract MORE from the natural pools of resources. Reuse can be simple, like donating old clothes you don't need so someone else can use them, or a little more complex, like repairing an item with minor performance issues or damage instead of choosing to replace it. And I've explained it before, but I'll reiterate--reuse comes before recycling, which is breaking down a product or material into constituents to become feedstocks in the creation of new items. Recycling is important, but it uses energy and other resources, and materials aren't always easy to reclaim from products. Even if they are, the quality of some materials degrade with every time they go through the recycling process, and they can't be used in quite the same way their next time around--this is called downcycling. So start by reducing. Where reduction isn't possible, reuse whenever you can, repair rather than replace, and when you no longer need or want something that still can be used, donate it, pass it on, or sell it so someone else can use it. And finally, when an item can't be practically reused anymore, recycle it if the infrastructure to do so exists in your area. If you observe materials that can't be recycled, contact the manufacturer and tell them you'd like to see their products be made from only materials that can be reclaimed for recycling. Or, depending on the situation, contact local authorities and let them know you'd like to see recycling options for the material in your community (e.g. if your curbside recycling accepts plastics with resin codes 1 and 2 only, and you'd like to see all types of plastics recycled). For more ideas, explore the "Solutions" section of the Earth Overshoot site. Also check out the "Steps to #MoveTheDate" section for specific tips.

And remember what the Global Footprint Network says in that section on solutions: "The current trend is not our destiny. The past does not necessarily determine our future. Our current choices do. Through wise, forward-looking decisions, we can turn around natural resource consumption trends while improving the quality of life for all people. While our planet is finite, human possibilities are not. The transformation to a sustainable, carbon-neutral world will succeed if we apply humanity's greatest strengths: foresight, innovation, and care for each other. The good news is that this transformation is not only technologically possible, it is also economically beneficial and our best chance for a prosperous future." In other words, we got ourselves into this mess. We can get ourselves out of it. We just need to recognize the problem and make better, smarter choices.

It's August 1, 2018. Seems like a good day to begin shaping a better destiny for ourselves, doesn't it?