Beginning tomorrow, humanity will be living on borrowed resources.
July 28 marks Earth Overshoot Day, the date when society's demand for resources exceeds what the Earth can generate in one year. In 2022, it falls two days earlier than in 2021.
"The qualities of humanity that led us to be successful, that led us to have good lives in the past, were associated with extracting resources for our environment. Whereas now, those qualities… are actually detrimental because we are over our budget," said David Lin, chief science officer at Global Footprint Network. "We only have one planet that we're living on and drawing resources from."
Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by dividing Earth's biocapacity by the ecological footprint or demand of mankind and multiplying that by 365. That calculation involves more than 10,000 data points for each country and takes months to determine, Lin said. But what it comes down to is pretty simple: the bigger humanity's resource demand, the earlier in the year the date falls.
What's more important than the actual date is the magnitude of overshoot, according to Global Footprint Network, the nonprofit behind Earth Overshoot Day. Data Global Footprint Network has collected since the 1960s on consumption and biocapacity has been used to influence policy decisions in countries across the world, according to the organization.
At humanity's current pace, it's consuming about 1.75 Earths-worth of resources each year. This trend of overconsumption started in the early 1970s. In 1971, Earth Overshoot Day landed close to the end of the year on Dec. 25, meaning humanity consumed slightly more than Earth could regenerate that year. By 1976, the date had fallen back by a month, and by about another month in 1987.
Credit: Global Footprint Network www.footprintnetwork.org
2020 was an exceptional year. Because of pandemic-related lockdowns, resource demand plunged in the first half of the year and Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug. 22. By the following year, that progress had reversed. In 2021, the date fell on July 30.
"You really can think about it like your financial accounting year budget. So if you overspend your budget, you draw down your balance in your bank account, right? If you're spending more than you earn on an annual basis, that's what happens," Lin said.
The consequences of overspending can lead to a call from collections, a damaged credit score, the inability to buy a home, or even bankruptcy. But when it comes to the planet, the consequences of persistent overconsumption for more than 50 years are cataclysmic.
Some one million species are threatened with extinction and 75 percent of environments on land are "severely altered" by humanity, according to a report from the United Nations. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, although the rate of growth has declined compared to past decades, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Another report from IPCC suggests that evidence of human influence on extreme weather has strengthened, especially when it comes to events like extreme rain, droughts, and cyclones.
"We're chopping down forests faster than they can grow. We are harvesting fisheries from the ocean faster than they can be regenerated, and we could be depleting our soils by intensive farming practices," Lin said. "But it also means we're producing more wastes than our environment can assimilate, and in particular, the accounts have a big proportion of this from CO2 emissions."
Another side effect of overconsumption is competition for food and energy. Resource consumption is far from uniform across the globe. If every country in the world consumed like people in the U.S., Canada, or the U.A.E., for example, Earth Overshoot Day would fall on March 13. Bolivia's overshoot day falls in the middle of the year around July 5. Jamaica, by contrast, is consuming at roughly the pace the world was back in the early 1970s. If every country consumed like Jamaica, Earth Overshoot Day would fall on Dec. 20.
Credit: Global Footprint Network www.footprintnetwork.org
Not all countries have an overshoot day. Some including India, the Philippines, and Senegal have ecological footprints per person that are less than the global biocapacity-per-person, according to the organization.
The destructive trend toward increasingly earlier overshoot days does not have to continue. Global Footprint Network created #Movethedate to encourage individuals, corporations, and governments to implement practices that reduce overconsumption, and thereby move the date of Earth Overshoot Day. The five key areas that Lin said could have the highest impact on consumption if altered include cities, energy, food, planet, and population.
"Cities" refers to eco-friendly infrastructure investment, which can include everything from planting more trees in urban environments (+0.9 days) to designing cities to be accessible on foot or on a bike within 15 minutes (+11 days). Recommendations for improving energy use can be as small as using LED light bulbs in individual homes (+1.8 days) and air-drying laundry (+1.3 days), to placing a more accurate price on carbon (+63 days) that disincentivizes its use. More sustainable food choices include practicing Meatless Mondays (+1.8 days), introducing plant-based meals to school cafeterias, or on a broader scale, cutting food waste in half worldwide (+13 days). Improving stewardship of the planet can involve everything from restoring and protecting tropical forests (+7 days) to promoting ecotourism. Population recommendations entail slowing population growth by empowering and educating women with access to reproductive healthcare and easy-to-use contraceptives (+49 days).
"Solutions shouldn't be a burden and shouldn't be a loss of well-being," Lin said. "The idea is that a lot of these, essentially the solutions that we've listed are ones that have shown to reduce inequality, empower women, and actually increase education and lead to much better lives and much better life outcomes."