Global Overshoot Day: how to reduce humanity’s ecological debt


Since 20 August, our consumption has officially exceeded the resources the Earth will be able to produce for the whole of 2013, says environmental NGO Global Footprint Network. As the date of Global Overshoot Day keeps advancing each year, experts and environmental activists hope to foster the will to change and embrace new lifestyles, for the good of everyone on our shared planet.


Each year, the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a Canadian environmental NGO, and the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank, determine the date of “Global Overshoot Day”: the day that humanity has used all the resources that the Earth can produce within a year. Reaching Global Overshoot Day before the year ends means that we enter a phase of “ecological debt.”

We have been in that phase for almost two weeks – since 20 August, 232 days into the year 2013. This signifies that “in approximately eight months, we demand more renewable resources and CO2 sequestration than what the planet can provide for an entire year,” writes GFN on its website.

We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Alarming results


The experts from GFN and the New Economics Foundation have been calculating the date of the Global Overshoot Day for 10 years. They have created a tool to measure the “difference between what nature can regenerate and what is needed to fuel human activities,” explains Le Monde. The indicator compares the quantity of available resources with actual consumption in each country of the world. The result is expressed in hectares per person and per year. The findings are rather worrying: humanity has been living beyond its means for thirty years now, as we started to exhaust nature’s budget for the year in the mid-1970s.

Today, 80% of the world population lives in a country that takes up more resources than its national ecosystem can afford:

for instance, 7.1 Japans would be needed to produce what the country consumes each year! Overall, we would need one and a half earths to meet the needs of the global population; soon – as there will be 9 billion of us in 2050 – we will find ourselves needing a whole second planet to sustain our lifestyle. The problem is, we yet do not have a second planet.

GFN warns that it is vital to curb this ecological debt, as its findings show that the situation is worsening progressively: in 1980, Global Overshoot Day was on 8 November; in 1993 it was on 21 October, and in 2009 it was on 7 September. The NGO has solid reasons to believe that the date will keep coming earlier in the future.


A call to action


What must we do, then? In its 2013 report, GFN makes several recommendations: adopt new technologies, rethink urban planning, come up with a comprehensive and effective green tax plan, reduce meat consumption, etc. Of course, curbing our collective debt requires political will, ambitious public policies and strong commitment from companies. But the “Global Overshoot Day” initiative is also a call to action for each and every one of us: as it is determined by what each country and each citizen consumes each year, it demonstrates how modifying individual behaviour can contribute to global change. WWF, one of GFN’s partners, has for instance created an online test you can use to calculate your environmental footprint, based on lifestyle habits. The result is also expressed in hectares per person and per year.

If you happen to use more land than would be sustainable, WWF provides a series of very concrete and easy measures you can adopt to help reduce that footprint.

A simple Google search will produce dozens of links to other personal environmental footprint calculators (and solutions to reduce that footprint): from the GFN, from Earth Day Network, from the Center for Sustainable Economy, etc.

And you can go further with even more accurate tools: since 2012, with the support of the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offers a calculation of the impact of our everyday consumption habits on modern slavery, thanks to a series of thorough questions. While the main focus here is not environmental impact per se, it is quite easy to draw parallels between the two issues. The calculator works as a powerful tool to help understand how the developed world’s lifestyle is sustained thanks to the exploitation of other people and of our shared resources. A few months back, we also talked on down to Earth about the tool that the European Commission put together to help the citizens evaluate and reduce their water consumption.


The need for optimism


In 1966, the first picture of the whole Earth seen from outer space was published. This was when humanity really realised, for the first time, that it was aboard a single ship, a common home to be shared by all. Forty years later, the crises the world is facing demonstrate but one thing: there are global problems that can only be addressed globally – which also means acting individually, everywhere, in every way we can. There are solutions, ways to preserve the planet for us and generations to come. The future need not be gloomy and chaotic. We need optimism and the will to change, for the better. Global Overshoot Day comes every year as a solemn and sad celebration of the unsustainability of our way of life. However, it can also be seen as a wake-up call and an opportunity to lead lives which are more connected to the reality of the world we live in – until being in phase with our environment becomes the most natural thing in the world, once again.

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