Last year we reached Earth Overshoot Day on August 22, but in reality, probably reached it much earlier than that, even with the world going into lockdown for a couple of months.
This year, Earth Overshoot Day is predicted to be on July 29. That’s almost a month earlier than last year. To explain what overshoot means, we must look at it in terms of a budget. Every year we have a certain number of resources we can use as a planet before we start going into debt. Once we go into a deficit, we start extracting more and more already scare resources, while emitting more carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Clearly, this is an ever growing concern with an ever growing population and consumption rate, especially as developing nations start to use more resources to get out of poverty.
From a BBC article published back in 2015, Americans use seven global hectares, compared to the global average of 2.7 hectares. This means Americans and the rest of the planet would need approximately four Earths to sustain our current population and American levels of consumption (McDonald). Additionally, our population is increasing about one percent every year; we add about 140 million people to the planet each year and Americans add over 3 million people each year just from natural births. Although the average number of children per woman has decreased (global average fertility is just below 2.5 children per woman), women in developing nations on average, have more than 4 children per woman. Furthermore, although more women in developed nations are having less children, the majority of women still have children, and usually two or less. In fact, more than 90% of ALL women in the world will experience pregnancy at least once in their lifetime, whether that pregnancy results in abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or an actual live and breathing baby.
Our one percent population growth and insurmountable consumption rate equals a climate catastrophe. The question then is how do we stop the growth or even reverse its effects? How do we stop exceeding our overshoot? Well, for environmentalists and economists, that has always been a question that has been in conflict. With our current economic model, which depends greatly on GDP (gross domestic product), we need a growing population and consumption rate of goods and services to continue to function. This has been the model the US and most of the world has depended on for almost the last 100 years of civilization. However, as most environmentalists would point out, this model cannot continue because of the finite resources that are available on this planet for humans and every other species. Based on an article from Investopedia in 2019, it is possible to separate economic growth from physical growth and its harmful effects. Furthermore, there is some evidence suggesting that, when countries pass a particular threshold, they become cleaner, less wasteful, and more efficient, all of which provide the hope that sustainable development is possible. Rich countries, however, tend to export much of their resource-intensive and environmentally damaging economic activity to poorer nations (Johnston). So, from this standpoint, we can still have economic “growth” without depending on the physical growth, such as more goods and people. One way we rethink the economic model is by proposing a circular economy, which in part is already slightly part of our economy (think Airbnb or shopping at a thrift store). A circular economy would mean that ultimately, no resources go to waste and everything continues to go back into the economy over and over again; when that product or good reaches its end of life, we put it back into the economy through recycling, energy output, etc. Yet, there are still many materials, such as plastic, that have extremely consequential effects on the environment and health of humans and other species. Not all plastic is bad per se, but our dependency on single-use plastics is what causes the majority of the pollution in the ocean. However, as far as what we already have and produce, we can continue to use so that we do not keep extracting virgin materials.
Another point to make is that when we can create an economy that provides the needs of all humans (healthcare, education, shelter, food, water), then we do not have to rely on continuous growth. If a society can meet its needs and live a comfortable lifestyle, why would we have to continue to grow more and more? Is that not what greed is anyways? When you need more and more and more, and your wants are never ending? Maybe the real question at the end of the day is, are we willing to give up some luxuries in order to ensure that every person can live adequately and have access to basic needs? This is the magic question to really put an end to unsustainable growth and overshoot.
Johnston, M. (2019). Is Infinite Economic Growth on a Finite Planet Possible? Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/120515/infinite-economic-growth-finite-planet-possible.asp
McDonald, C. (2015). How many Earths do we need? BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712#:~:text=It’s%20this%20figure%20of%20seven,the%20most%20on%20this%20measure
Roser, M. (2017). Fertility Rate. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/fertility-rate