Ask Eartha: The woes of Earth Overshoot Day
August 12, 2016
As I was scrolling through news articles recently, I saw a headline about Earth Overshoot Day. Could you tell me more about it?
— Pete, Silverthorne
Thanks for your question, Pete! It's true — our global community reached a milestone this week, but, unfortunately, it's no cause for celebration.
On Aug. 8, we observed Earth Overshoot Day, which means we have officially used more natural resources in 2016 than the Earth can replenish in a single year. Obviously, there are resources left — we're not doomed — but we are robbing ourselves and future generations of a resource-rich future.
Earth Overshoot Day was created by the Global Footprint Network, a sustainability nonprofit that provides tools to policymakers, so they better understand the impacts of resource overuse. A simple equation is used to determine when World Overshoot Day will fall each year, but, in order to understand the math, we need to define a few key words.
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The first is biocapacity, which refers to the amount of natural resources the Earth can produce in a year. The second term, ecological footprint, is a measure of the amount of resources a person or a country consumes.
Back to the equation: Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by dividing biocapacity by our global ecological footprint and then multiplying by 365. The result gives us the number of days in a year that Earth has the biocapacity to provide for our collective resource use. After we pass Earth Overshoot Day, we run an ecological deficit for the rest of the year.
To put this in perspective, if everyone on the planet lived like the average American, we would need nearly five planets to sustain our resource use. Of course, not everyone in the world consumes natural resources at the same rate. Globally speaking, humanity uses about one-and-a-half planets' worth of resources each year. And while that might make you feel a little less bad about our resource use, we humans are not making much progress in decreasing our consumption levels. The first Earth Overshoot Day was in October 2006. In 2014, it was Aug. 19, and last year, it fell on Aug. 13. The date has been inching forward each year, which means our resource use is steadily increasing.
We're fortunate to live in a time when most of us have access to abundant food, clean water and all sorts of fancy products, but we've gotten greedy. For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that food production in the United States uses 80 percent of our freshwater, 50 percent of our land and 10 percent of our energy budget on food production — but 40 percent of the food produced goes uneaten. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated 37 million tons of food waste in 2013, and only five percent was diverted from landfills through composting.
And have you ever heard of planned and perceived obsolescence? These are strategies used by manufacturers to get us to buy more stuff. By designing products to break after a certain period of time, designing pieces of technology so individual parts can't be replaced or just changing the style of cars, clothes or phones, consumers are enticed to buy new products before they might actually need to be replaced. And all of this consumption contributes to greater resource use.
If you want to do your part to lessen the burden placed on our one and only planet, here are a few simple actions you can take to minimize your resource use and live a more sustainable lifestyle:
Calculate your own Ecological Footprint. Knowledge is power, right? Understanding your resource use will help you understand just how consumptive our lifestyles can be. There are plenty of free tools available on the internet to calculate your footprint.
Reduce your carbon emissions. You can start by improving the energy efficiency of your home and driving less.
Minimize your water use. It's as easy as turning off water when washing hands or brushing teeth, only running dishwashers and washing machines with full loads and taking shorter showers. Colorado's rain barrel law just went into effect, so you are now permitted to collect rainwater in up to two 55-gallon barrels for outdoor watering.
Start composting. Sign up for HC3's food scrap drop-off program or hire local company Curb to Compost to pick up your food scraps.
Be a savvy consumer. Purchase items made with recycled content or that were made with planet- and people-friendly ingredients.
Buy less stuff. Think thoughtfully about what you really need to get by, and try to cut out the excess.
Pete, once you've incorporated these ideas into your daily life, encourage your family and friends to do so, too! Behavior change is easier with a support group. I'll be right there with you and always happy to answer any more questions you might have.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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