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Your Prediction of Earth Overshoot Day

In 1980 William Catton published a book titled Overshoot, which outlined how the scale of the human enterprise had outgrown our planet. Every year scientists at the Global Footprint Network calculate the day humanity crosses into overshoot for that year. They’ve dubbed it Earth Overshoot Day, and it’s coming up. I’m inviting you at the end of this post to predict when that day will fall this year.

What, exactly, is overshoot? It’s a critical concept to understand, because it is directly related to the concept of sustainability and the ability of humankind to stick around.

A simple way to explain overshoot is analogizing Earth’s resources and ecosystems to your savings account at the bank. In Earth’s case, we don’t get to make new deposits into our natural capital account. We have to make good use of what is on the planet. Just as your savings account earns interest, Earth’s resources are replenished. Acorns fall and new trees grow. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and put oxygen back into the atmosphere. Fish reproduce.

Progress-Cartoon-420x320 Now, if you need your savings account to last indefinitely, you can’t be withdrawing the principal. You need to live off the interest it earns. If we want to live on Earth a long time, we need to live off the interest in our natural capital account. If we cut down trees faster than they regrow, or harvest fish faster than they reproduce, or grow and harvest crops faster than the nutrients in the soil can replenish, then we are withdrawing principal from that account.

There can be no debating, that behavior is unsustainable. It can’t go on indefinitely. We have overshot a level of consumption that the planet can support sustainably.

That brings us back to Earth Overshoot Day. The Living Planet Report, based on data from the Global Footprint Network, tells us we are in overshoot today, using about 50% more resources each year than the Earth can replenish. That’s why we’re seeing climate disruption, fisheries collapsing, aquifer and river levels dropping, and high rates of species extinction, among other evidence.

Of course, we use too much of the planet’s bounty every day. If our savings account earns a dollar in interest every day, we are withdrawing $1.50. We can only do that year after year if we stop withdrawing interest every August and ride out the rest of the year with no more withdrawals. We can’t actually do that with Earth’s resources, but in order to help us visualize just how far into overshoot we are, Global Footprint Network calculates what day each year we’d have to basically stop eating, drinking, peeing, driving, flying, manufacturing, and drinking – and hold our breath for the rest of the year in order to make up for our unsustainable rate of resource intensity up to that point.

Last year Earth Overshoot Day was August 22. It’s been moving about 3 days earlier every year, which is a sign we are not paying attention to the evidence and changing our ways. Our footprint is a product of the size of our population and the size of our economy. More economic growth and population growth won’t solve this problem; they will make it worse. If we love our kids, we will make every effort to end population growth, consume less, and relax a little more. Relaxing doesn’t chew up the planet!

So, how have we been doing for the past year? Relaxing more? Consuming less? Practicing safe sex? We’re taking a little poll to see what most of us think about our civilization’s progress toward sustainability. When do you think Earth Overshoot Day will fall this year? If you don’t see the poll here, take the poll here.

Earth Overshoot Day is the day the total resources consumed by humanity will exceed the capacity for the Earth to generate those resources that year. In 1987 it fell on December 19th. In 2012 it was on August 22nd. When will it occur this year?
See results

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker & GrowthBuster

Dave Gardner is the director of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. If you believe the film and these posts are valuable, please support this non-profit project.

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Comments (14)

  • Avatar

    Helen Critchell

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    But this subject just does not seem to resonate with governments who are obsessed with growth!

    Reply

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    Dave Gardner

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    Helen, no it does not! So, who ya gonna call? GrowthBusters!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Mike Hanauer

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    I worry about us making predictions. We are usually wrong and lose credibility by doing so. Technology has a “wonderful” way of allowing society to kick the can down the road — for who knows how long.

    I am more comfortable in talking about a loss of quality of life over time, rather than say we will implode or whatever. How much traffic, loss of species, pollution, loss of open space, crowding, etc do we want until we say enough is enough. I love the cartoon.

    Reply

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      Brian Sanderson

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      Mike, further to your excellent point, Paul Colinvaux made some interesting predictions in his 1978 book, “Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare”.

      First, Colinvaux (an ecologist) observed “that a satisfying human niche is bounded by a set of unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness.”

      His predictions:
      (1) “Our technology will continue to grant life.”
      (2) “The future therfore holds ever greater restrictions on individual freedom… our traditional ways of doing things will seem like poems of the past.”
      (3) “Liberty will fall progressively as numbers rise, and obedient compliance with majority will must take the place of individual initiative”
      (4) “mass poverty will return”
      (5) “[Leaders] … look to their own privileges, becoming a repressive ruling class.”

      Looking only to the USA (things get worse when one looks further) I’d say that all of his predictions have either come true or are well on the way to becoming true. Witness wealth disparity. Witness how the corporate lobby has hijacked democracy. Witness zero tolerance and over-flowing prisons. Witness…

      The only optimistic prediction, (1) above, holds so far. Time will tell if it continues to hold. Personally, I think (1) will fail in the USA within 2 generations.

      Reply

      • Avatar

        Dave Gardner

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        Thanks for your insightful post, Brian. Isn’t it #1 that is setting us up for 2-5 to happen?

        Reply

        • Avatar

          Brian Sanderson

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          Hi Dave,
          Based upon history, I’d have to say you are correct.

          But, it does not have to be so. And the “growthbuster” message is fundamental to orienting the human project towards quality as opposed to mere quantity.

          Reply

  • Avatar

    Alexander Hill

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    You’re preaching to the choir. the sinners are all copulating heedlessly. How do you reach them? Not with facts and logic.

    Reply

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      Brian Sanderson

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      Dear Alexander, There is considerable truth in what you say. Many people are swayed more by social convention than by logic and fact.

      Nevertheless, having the facts and logic assembled, and having the courage to speak them, is an important step towards influencing the thinking of those who influence social conventions.

      Reply

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    Jackie Bergman

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    Understanding a problem is a fisrt step to action. But mental understanding DOES NOTHING of manifestation, unless emotions are awakened. Motivation is generated by emotions!

    Reply

      • Avatar

        Brian Sanderson

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        Hi Dave,
        I’m just waiting for the commedian’s to see that the population issue is full of excellent material… Hmm, perhaps that would be an angle that one could have a little fun with.

        Reply

  • Avatar

    Paul

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    What happens if one year earth overshoot day falls on January 2?

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      Paul, I’m pretty sure humans will be extinct, or at least our numbers will be reduced drastically by Mother Nature, long before Earth Overshoot Day moves back that far.

      Reply

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