Saturday, August 17, 2013

Overshoot Day: Oh shoot, there go our resources for the year

Overshoot Day will soon be upon us – we don’t know for sure when it will happen, but estimates suggest that it will be sometime next week.  This little-known landmark day, appropriately tagged as #oShoot day in the World Wildlife Fund social media campaign, has occurred every year since about 1970 and marks the point each year at which our global population has used up all of the resources that the earth can sustainably produce/replenish in one year.  Any resource use beyond this date is unsustainable, and is stealing from future generations.  The Global Footprint Network explains Earth Overshoot Day with the metaphor of an ecological budget:  in a balanced budget, our global society would use one earth’s worth of resources (or less) in a year.  Defecit spending occurs when we use more than one earth’s worth of resources in a year.  Currently, we are blowing through our yearly “budget” of resources in just eight months, leaving four months of the year where we are stealing resources from our future.

 Source: Global Footprint Network

Overshoot has serious implications.  If we are drawing down our future resources and using them today instead of saving them for tomorrow, our global society will be facing serious shortages of water, land, clean air, and carbon sequestration capability, which leads to a very ominous picture for our ability to survive in the future.  Let me dust off my population ecology knowledge for a moment and share this graph with you:

 Bing "Overshoot Graph" Images - Original Source unknown

This graph illustrates the idea of “overshoot” in a population.  The dotted line represents the carrying capacity, or the maximum population that the habitat can support.  While resources are plentiful, the population (red line) grows until the resources become scarce (overshoot) and population numbers begin to plummet as a result.  This graph is usually applied to specific populations of an animal species in a given habitat, but can be extremely disconcerting when you think of it in terms of our entire planet.  We currently have the technology to keep extracting resources and extend the resource overshoot without our population being much affected.  However, our technology will not be able to save us when our basic resources run out, because there is no way for us to manufacture fresh water, cropland, forestland, and other resources to sustain our entire global population.  That would be the point at which that red line plummets and populations rapidly decrease (i.e., people die because they lack the basic resources needed to survive).  I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be riding that red line down!

So now we know that overshoot is a very serious problem, but what can be done about it?  First and foremost, everyone needs to understand how their lifestyle is contributing to the problem.  Go to and take the ecological footprint survey to see how many earths’ worth of resources would be needed if everyone on the planet lived like you. This quiz isn't perfect, as the questions are fairly generalized, but it will give you an idea of what your resource use looks like. My results were pretty horrifying: if everyone on the planet lived like me, we would need 4.64 earths.  Yikes.  My Carbon and Food footprints were right on par with the rest of the United States, but luckily my Housing and Goods/Services footprints were well below the US average (yay for 500-square-foot condos and frugal spending!).   

Just for fun, I re-took the quiz and selected Ethiopia instead of the US, and then proceeded to answer the rest of the questions exactly the same.  This time, my result was 0.99 earths.  This just goes to show how much your ecological footprint is influenced by the country you live in—and just how unsustainably we live in the United States!  I would like to extend a challenge: can anyone living in the US get a score of less than one earth on this quiz? I’m not sure if it’s possible, and that speaks volumes as to how much work our country still has to do in order to move toward a sustainable society.

Now that we know how much our ecological footprint is contributing to the issue of overshoot, what can we do?  The overall answer (as it is with so many ecological problems) is to consume less. Consume less, reduce, reuse, recycle, buy locally, plant a garden, and live within your means.  The My Footprint website has a link to a great list of things you can do--conveniently located right below your horrifying quiz result!

Let’s all try to reduce our ecological footprints as much as possible, while also supporting sustainability efforts in our communities, counties, states, and even our whole country.  We all need to pitch in to make sure that resources are available and sustainably managed for future generations, so we can avoid riding that plunging red line down to an uncertain future.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for providing this information, and the tool with which we can discern our own footprint. It was eye-opening to me and should prove useful going forward.