The world is living as if we have 1.75 Earths, while only a small minority are responsible for most of this overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is the point in the year that we start living outwith our means – if you like, it’s the point in the year that our outgoings exceed our income ecologically. It includes species populations like fish and forests, as well as carbon emissions and waste. Every day from now until the end of the year we are living on ecological debt; future generations will inherit it. To be clear, we don’t run out of everything on this particular day – it’s a metaphor for exceeding a sustainable operating space. There are some things Earth Overshoot Day doesn’t calculate too, like land use, which some have pointed out would paint an even bleaker picture. So we shouldn’t get hung up on exact dates – it’s the magnitude of our impact and the overall trend that matters here.
Country overshoot days tell a slightly different tale – the point in the year where, if the world lived as that country does, we would be in ecological debt. For the UK, that was back in May. The importance of country overshoot days is helping to show how unequal our impacts are: the majority of the World’s population have little influence compared to a high-consumption minority.
Every year, hundreds of blogs and thousands of tweets orbit around the central issue of overshoot on more or less the same trajectory, like satellites. It’s very hard to say something that wasn’t said last year. And it’s increasingly hard to see how next year will be much different – for every year that we see promises of change those promises become more and more disingenuous. It’s easy to see why people feel frustrated and anxious.
It gets earlier and earlier most years: in 2018 Earth Overshoot Day was in August.
As the graph shows, it hasn’t got worse every year – the years in which Earth Overshoot Day occurred a little later than the previous year often correlates with an economic downturn. Look at the dips in the chart from 2007 – 2010, for instance, or the 1979 Oil Crisis. A chaotic recession clearly has other negative consequences, but when the economy isn’t growing, neither is our footprint. UK and EU parliaments both have cross-party working groups considering what a post-growth economy would look like. New Zealand this year confirmed it would move away from an economy geared for endless growth, and towards one built for well-being.
Systemic change is essential. Individual actions can be important, but they can’t be sufficient – the ways in which we produce and consume are unsustainable, and we design them into our economy and policymaking.
Where will change come from?
As a priority, Scotland must make a concerted effort to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. While efforts have been made, we have yet to see the marshalling and deployment of resources and forward-thinking demanded by the emergency, compared, for example, to our efforts on economic growth.
In Scotland, we need the promised Circular Economy and Zero Waste Bill to ensure we stop designing waste and overexploitation into our social and economic systems. We’ve relied on non-binding strategies for too long – to generate change, to hold institutions to account, we need laws to enable it and, when necessary, enforce it.
To help in our transition to a sustainable society, we must think at these system levels without alienating and occluding people and communities. The Trust is working to ensure that natural climate solutions are a key part of our response to climate breakdown, in addition to drastic cuts to emissions. Part of this involves challenging people to reimagine their future Scotland – responsibly regenerated woodlands, restored peatlands, organic farming incorporating natural systems rather than working against them. The appropriate natural climate solutions will be highly localised, giving us a clear agenda for community discussion and proactive engagement.
Climate and ecological breakdown mutually reinforce one another – our strategies to combat them must do the same to move Earth Overshoot Day in the right direction.
In the meantime, you can get involved here in a global network that learns and boosts what other communities are doing around the world. You can learn from others and showcase your own, or your community’s work.
Scott Leatham, Policy Specialist
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The world is living as if we have 1.75 Earths, while only a small minority are responsible for most of this overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is the point in the …