Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

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In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

The costs are evident in a number of ways that include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough, what the GFN calls Earth Overshoot Day fell last year in early October – which means that our demands on an increasingly constrained world have grown much more rapidly, perhaps, then even the environmentally aware among us may have suspected. Even more interesting is that these challenging facts achieved virtually zero exposure in terms of conventional column inches or airtime. Humanity carried on oblivious to the implications of its spiraling demands. The fact that these are undermining its present and future is evidently a truth that cannot be spoken. It therefore continues to be avoided and overlooked.

The GFN calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the following way. It:

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 2015: (Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day).

No doubt many people would be willing to contest the methodology and its conclusions – and so they should. After all the implications are profound. But the sad fact is that the conversation is simply not taking place out in the open where it can gain traction and inform any meaningful public discourse. There’s a precedent for this elision of uncomfortable reality that refers us all the way back to 1972 and the publication of the first Limits to Growth (LTG) study. As Karen Higgs (Collision Course, 2014) and others have pointed out, it has become increasingly clear that the conclusions of the LTG constituted a rare and valuable gift to humanity that humanity was unprepared or unwilling to receive. The study and its authors were subjected to severe abuse because they challenged the primacy of economic growth – one of the fundamental assumptions of the social and economic order. Now, however, the results of failing to heed and understand the LTG over several decades means that we are currently facing extreme versions of the problems that had earlier been foreseen.

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The GFN can, therefore, in some ways be regarded as a successor to the LTG team. But the methodology has changed and, I would argue, improved. Looked at as a date that moves forward each year ‘overshoot day’ provides another clear signal about what is happening. Moreover, the GFN team draws a surprisingly positive implication in its press release. It suggested that: ‘the global agreement to phase out fossil fuels that is being discussed around the world ahead of the Climate Summit in Paris would significantly help curb the Ecological Footprint’s consistent growth and eventually shrink the Footprint.’ Similarly:

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations. Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

The press statement goes on to assert that ‘this is not impossible.’ Yet these hopeful suggestions adhere to a highly improbable trajectory. Given the current state of social upheaval and geopolitical conflict in the world – to say nothing of dissonant values and uneven development – the chances of contending nations and over-powerful corporations agreeing to rein in humanity’s demands on the Earth appear negligible.

The truth that seldom gets reported anywhere in mainstream media is that the human enterprise is running a long way beyond any reasonable prospect of moderation or control. It follows that the forces most likely to engender changes of course are those that are emerging from the global system itself. That is to say, the planet is adjusting to our collective impacts with glacial but unstoppable momentum. As a result we are, as James Lovelock puts it, in for a very ‘rough ride into the future.’ It’s hardly surprising that currently affluent populations would rather avert their gaze than admit to themselves that the world is running out of options.

Review of Higgs, K. Collision Course: http://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/Collision_Course_Review_Final_070415.pdf

About Earth Overshoot Day: http://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/

Global Footprint Network: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/at_a_glance/

Illustrations courtesy of the Global Footprint Network