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Earth Overshoot Day: a reminder that our world is dying and we are killing it

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 18 August 2015, 1:45 IST
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Shifting day

  • Earth Overshoot Day was on 13 August this year
  • It never falls on the same day every year
  • In 1970, it was on 23 December; it has drawn nearer since

Firm message

  • We\'re using up resources faster than the earth can replenish
  • For every 100 units of nature we should consume, we use 162
  • Solving green issues isn\'t just for leaders; it\'s everyone\'s fight

August 13 was Earth Overshoot Day. Many have never heard of it. Why is it in the news then? More importantly, how is it different from the deluge of other 'days'?

The Overshoot Day, unlike the others, doesn't fall on the same day every year because nobody can know for sure. This is what makes it so important.

It's the day we have used up all the earth's resources that we were supposed to have taken the whole year to consume.

It's a doomsday forged by our own hands, and it has been signalling disaster every year.

In an ideal scenario, the day should fall on 31 December. It never has. And every time we consume more resources than we ought to, the day comes nearer.

The idea can be confusing. For instance, it says that our way of life actually requires 1.6 earths to sustain.

So, here is what this all means, and why it's one of the most important indicators to watch out for.

What does overshoot mean?

The word overshoot indicates that something is limited. That's the earth.

It also implies that someone is crossing these limits. That's all of us.

In other words: the earth's bio-capacity is limited while our ecological footprint is rising. It is the tug-of-war between the two that defines overshoot.

Take a society living in a remote forest. Say, it uses 10 acres of land for farming and another 10 for gathering medicinal plants, water, and to hunt.

These activities have an ecological footprint. But what is used will regenerate at nature's pace - new plants will sprout, branches will grow back.

If the people stick to a simple lifestyle, and within a reasonable population, this can go on forever. We will say the ecological footprint is within the bio-capacity. There is no overshoot.

We have overshot our resources by 62%; for every 100 units of nature we should consume, we use up 162!

Now, take a typical city. It emits large amounts of carbon dioxide, and uses a wide range of resources to survive.

It's not just that a city's population is higher. Lifestyles are also such that consumption is much higher than our austere forest-dwellers. So, the rate of consuming natural resources is higher than the nature's capacity to replenish them.

Ideally, a sustainable life is one that lives off only the replenished amount - of oxygen, water and vegetation. Because when we go beyond this, we start drawing on the base stock of natural resources.

When that happens, lesser is replenished each year. This repeats until we will have nothing left.

Simply put, overshoot tells us if we have crossed these limits. The more we use up, the lesser is left for the future.

In this sense, overshoot is, without exaggeration, the biggest indicator of how badly our actions today will affect our children, and theirs. It should be marked every year.

What's the Overshoot Day telling us?

According to the Global Footprint Network, we have overshot by 62% so far. If we are supposed to use up 100 units of nature without unbalancing it, we have actually used up 162. That's alarming.

The earliest recorded Overshoot Day was in 1970, on 23 December. It has never been so modest in the 45 years since. We have already moved four months early, to August.

And by 2030, the network expects the day to arrive in June if our consumption trends don't change.

There is no indication they will. All consumption trends are rising. Private consumption expenditures have grown four-fold since 1960, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

This is not just because people who had little before are living comfortably now. It's the rich who are consuming more.

"Industrial countries remain responsible for the bulk of the world's resource consumption - as well as the associated global environmental degradation," the institute said in a 2011 report.

Since 1970, Earth Overshoot Day has moved 4 months early. By 2030, it will likely arrive in June

"Yet there is little evidence that the consumption locomotive is braking, even in the United States, where most people are amply supplied with the goods and services needed to lead a dignified life."

India is no better. According to the network, India currently requires two Indias to feed its population. Few in the country know this.

A country, however, can still quench its thirst for resources by importing from others. A planet does not have that option.

What the Earth Overshoot Day is most concerned with are a critical part of our lives - air, water and plants.

Every year, the day reminds us how much our consumption is central to earth's sustainability.

In that sense, it tells us that solving environmental problems isn't just for negotiation tables and ministries. It belongs right in our drawing rooms.

And it tells us that we're doing nothing about it.

First published: 18 August 2015, 1:45 IST
 
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.

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