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A Day to Take Note of Our Irrational Behavior

Today is a day like any other. The morning paper is on the front step. Traffic is backed up. Another ozone alert. Homebuilders are optimistic new home starts are on the rise. Too few jobs were created last month. Consumers didn’t spend as much as manufacturers and retailers hoped. A global slowdown is making tough times for mining companies. And U.S. presidential candidates promise they have the roadmap for a return to robust economic growth.

Turn on the radio on your way to work today, and – as routine as all the above sound – they will be discussed to the exclusion of the fact that today is Earth Overshoot Day. That’s a shame, because Overshoot Day has more relevance to your quality of life, and the lives of your children, than any of items occupying the pundits and newscasters.

We Are Over-Budget on Resource Use
Earth Overshoot Day marks the day of the year we’ve used up the resources the Earth can replenish in a year’s time. From this day to the end of the year our resource use will overdraw our natural resource account, liquidating forests, soil, minerals, aquifers and livable atmosphere faster than they are regenerated. When we’re behaving sustainably, Earth Overshoot Day will occur on December 31 (or not at all, as we’ll not be dipping into the principal in our natural capital account). Unfortunately, Earth Overshoot Day occurs earlier each year, not later. Surprised?

We can thank the Global Footprint Network for doing the research and bringing this to our attention. But let’s also thank Monty Python’s Flying Circus for illustrating what we’re doing in this scene from the feature film, The Meaning of Life:

Yep, that’s us. (See the entire gluttony sequence here.) We’ve become so enamored of more, more, more, we don’t even have eyes to see what our culture’s economic consumption gluttony is doing to the world around us, our lives, and the lives of the generations succeeding us. We are chewing up the planet in our quest for “prosperity.”

U.S. Overshoot Day Was March 28
The poorer and the more sustainably behaving nations consume less and thus bring down the average, so globally we make it to August 22 before we’re burning down the house to keep warm. But Global Footprint Network scientists have done the calculations on a nation by nation basis. The super-consuming United States actually hit overshoot day on March 28!

But here’s a news flash: 1.4 billion Chinese want to live high on the hog like the U.S. And there may soon be 2 billion Indians who also want their iPads, iPhones, Range Rovers and McMansions. Wait a minute. If we’re already into overshoot with just 7 billion on the planet, and 3 billion living on less than $2.50 a day, how can planet Earth possibly deliver the good life to all 7 billion of us? Or, for that matter, to the ten billion expected by the end of this century? It can’t. That is why I made the GrowthBusters movie, to bring attention to the need to reduce our population AND our rates of consumption.

But Wait, There are No Limits (Ronald Reagan told me)!
Current evidence to the contrary, some rosy optimists believe human beings are so incredibly bright and innovative that there are virtually no limits. They warn against allowing population to decline. They worship economic growth. Washington Post columnist George Will is no scientist, but he has the power of the pen and offered his expert opinion last week (Why Doom Has Not Materialized). Will’s column was little more than a plagiaristic rehash of an essay (Environmental Alarmism) published two months ago by professional science skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. So maybe that’s a good sign. The only way George Will could come up with something so wrong-headed was to borrow the words from a Neanderthal like Lomborg. GrowthBusters interviewee Bob Walker, president of the Population Institute, provided this lucid rebuttal.

“Copper and oil come out of our minds.”
                      – Cornucopian Optimist Julian Simon

NNR price chart shows resource prices skyrocketing lately Most of these techno-optimists offer only this proof that we can innovate our way around finite resources: we have for the past two hundred years managed to delay the day of resource-limit reckoning predicted by some. If you’re looking for a way to support your own cornucopian worldview, then holding up this 200-year blip in the history of humanity does the job. But if you’re looking for the truth, you might want to broaden your view. Last century we dodged a bullet. That doesn’t mean the bullet won’t find its target this century. Indications are that, just as the MIT Limits to Growth computer modeled, during the first few decades of this century we are going to hit those resource limits. Chris Clugston, author of the new book Scarcity, in a recent update shared this  chart showing where we stand on a few critical resources (NNR is Non-Renewable Resources):

The Fetish of  GDP
Earth Overshoot Day is a good time to start thinking about our goals and metrics for success as a society. Increasing gross domestic product (GDP, or economic throughput), suggests Global Footprint Network’s Mathis Wackernagel, was a good focus during the last couple of centuries when financial assets were limited. In this century, natural capital or ecological assets are becoming more scarce, more crucial, and therefore should move to a higher priority.

“We must curb our appetites, before we eat ourselves out of house and home.”
                                                                        – Stephanie Kaza, in Mindfully Green

This would suggest we drive our cultural car with eyes on more than just the speedometer. If we’re driving off a cliff, speeding up just gets us to catastrophe faster. Much more meaningful metrics are being developed and used today – measures more aligned with what really matters in life (hint: it has little to do with what’s in your wallet). We are not defined by what we buy at the mall. The ingredients of a satisfying life are good relationships, connection to community and meaningful work.

Yet today elected officials and leaders of corporations are planning as though we aren’t already consuming at a rate that would require 1.5 Earths to support sustainably. Their plans will push Global Overshoot Day back to the end of June before we hid mid-century. They are hooked on growth, with all eyes on what GrowthBusters interviewee Raj Patel calls “the fetish of GDP.”

Sadly we had to go back four years to find this interview about Global Overshoot Day on San Francisco public radio station KALW. Rose Aguilar interviewed Global Footprint Network Executive Director Mathis Wackernagel about our ecological footprint and Global Overshoot Day (which fell on September 28 in 2008) (listen here). This subject demands more attention.

The size of our footprint is dependent on both the system in which we live and work, and our own personal habits and lifestyle. Global Footprint Network has created this quiz to see how big your own ecological footprint is. While we’re all working to reduce the size of own footprints, we must make it possible for elected officials and business leaders to set a goal of sustainability rather than promise us more unfettered growth and greed. Individually and collectively, I don’t think we want to follow the unfortunate course of Mr. Creosote in that Monty Python film clip.

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker

Dave Gardner is the director of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet.

If you find this information at all compelling, if you’re concerned about the prospects for a civilization hell-bent to grow forever on a finite planet, please take the Think Small Pledge and encourage your friends, family and colleagues to do so. Thank you.

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Comments (0)

  • Avatar

    Mike Hanauer

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    We need to add 150,000 jobs per month to keep the unemployment rate the same — because of population growth. This is the antithesis of anything that promotes sustainability or makes sense.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jessie Henshaw

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    Check my math, but it seems to me that over the next 100 years we’ll need ~8 more earths to keep consuming virgin resources at the exponential rate our economic system got accustomed to.

    How I calculate that is knowing that for any growth system, during a doubling period it will consume an amount equal to all past consumption. Given that we hit the natural limit of consuming resources at stable prices in ~2002, and have been doubling our energy consumption about every 33 years, in 100 years we’d need 8 more earths, on our way to needing 64 more in the next 100 years… etc.

    Of course, given that’s one of those easily discredited notions for people living on an infinite planet. So it’s likely no one will be watching out for the added planets we need, as they float bye. So, maybe it would be good to set up a “Planet Watch” to record sightings of possible alien worlds we could capture to satisfy our planet consumption budget, and future resource plan, you know, “crowd sourcing” our manifest destiny?

    Reply

      • Avatar

        Dave Gardner

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        Excellent comments, Jessie. Thanks for sharing them. Your note about a Planet Watch reminds me of The Borg, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. We seem to be heading in that direction, seriously (and sadly).

        Reply

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