What do we do when we’ve used up all of the earthly resources that sustain our lives? “Hold your breath, don’t eat” until they regenerate, was the joking suggestion from Mathis Wackernagel, executive director of the Global Footprint Network (GFN). Wackernagel, in New York for Climate Week NYC, declared that Friday, September 25, was Earth Overshoot Day – “the day when humanity begins living beyond its ecological means.”
This can be a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. After all, Friday has passed and we’re still breathing and eating. Is Earth Overshoot like running out of wine at a party? Not exactly. Since nature’s resources are generally regenerative rather than finite, Earth Overshoot is a rate comparison: our rate of consumption exceeds the Earth’s rate of resource generation.
Using over 5,000 data points, the Global Footprint Network calculates two basic numbers: World Biocapacity and World Ecological Footprint (EF). The first is a measure of how much water, food, fiber, timber, and carbon sequestration is provided by the Earth in a single year – all converted to a land area in “global acres.” The second is a measure of how much water, food, fiber, and timber humans use, plus how much carbon we emit – also converted to global acres.
According to 2009 estimates, the World Ecological Footprint is roughly 40 percent higher than the World Biocapacity. Thus, 268 days into the year we “celebrate” Earth Overshoot Day. Although little publicized currently, this is something that could be more widely recognized and talked about – even used as a teaching tool.
While GFN has developed a spiffy logo for Earth Overshoot Day and a range of images to convey the significance of the day, the explicit message of reduce your footprint and here’s how is noticeably absent. This is not an oversight on GFN’s part, but rather a signal of their effort to frame the Ecological Footprint concept in a positive light. The goal, as Wackernagel puts it, “is not just to tell people to cut their ecological footprint, but to ask, ‘How can we have the best lives possible?’”
Wackernagel is insistent on this approach, citing the need for people, businesses, and countries to realize their own self-interest in reducing their footprints. The messaging around environmental and climate action is often focused on telling us how to act rather than explaining the root reasons for changing our ways, but Wackernagel says, “We give you the data and the trends, and you make the decisions.”
But how can you guarantee that simply spreading knowledge will also spread behavior change? This job is being done by individuals, organizations, and even governments that have found unique ways of using the Ecological Footprint. Educators are teaching about environmental impact by having their students take the Ecological Footprint Quiz, and the organization Redefining Progress provides a list of Footprint Education ideas.
In just the past year, a host of reports on the status of the planet and human wellbeing have included the Ecological Footprint as a main part of their equations. The New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index (HPI) measures a person’s life satisfaction and longevity against their environmental impact, yielding “happy life years per global acre.” While the HPI may seem a little out there, WWF’s Living Planet Report, published periodically since 1998, uses the EF as its primary indicator of environmental impact.
More recently, the French government-sponsored Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (a.k.a., the Stiglitz Commission) made news in September with the release of a report on the limits of GDP and possibilities for other indicators oriented toward a sustainable future. The report examined the Ecological Footprint extensively and acknowledged its potential value in international statistics reporting. In fact, GFN has now set a goal of getting 10 countries to adopt the EF as a central national statistic.
If the world needs greater recognition of our ecological impact, whether it be in official reports or in individual daily lives, it must be brought about in a positive manner. Earth Overshoot, then, is not about doom and gloom but about looking forward to the changes that will come when more people realize the benefits of reducing their footprints. As Earth Overshoot Day moves further and further back on our calendar, we are in dire need of ramping up the rate of behavior change because, barring a miracle, the emptying wine jugs won’t refill themselves.