Overdrawn: Earth Overshoot Day

Imagine that your income isn’t quite covering your expenses. Every month you run out of cash just before you get paid. But now, imagine that you find you’re running out of money sooner with each passing month, trying to cover the gap by running up your credit card. At first it’s just a few days, then a week, then more.

Pretty soon, you would know you had a problem.

That’s almost exactly the situation we’re in as a species, and yet we’re only very dimly aware of our problem. And not just any problem, but one which, left unattended, will with arithmetic certainty doom our techno-culture of miracles and wonders to a painful and crude adjustment to the sharply shrunken limits of the human habitat.

That is the only conclusion we can draw from the information that Earth Overshoot Day has already arrived. That is the day, to keep my metaphor of a household budget going a little longer, when the ‘income’ of natural resources provided by the planet’s sustaining climate, ocean and ecosystems in any median 12-month period, is exausted. 

When that day was originally observed in the 1980s, it came in late December. Then it arrived before Thanksgiving—first America’s and then Canada’s. Now it comes before Labour Day. 

But here is where the metaphor breaks down. Nature doesn’t do credit. We can’t put extra fresh air, clean water, productive fisheries or fertile soil in a stable climate, on our Platinum Card.

Instead, we are running down what amounts to the principle in a trust account: the accumulated sunshine of fossil fuels; the productive abundance of mature, complex marine and terrestrial ecosystems; aquifers tens of thousands of years in the making; a climate stability arguably millions of years in the creation. And like any savings account, when our principle is gone… it simply runs out.

And here the financial metaphor collapses entirely. Money is an abstraction: bankers invent more of it every day. Habitat is real: sticky, muddy, wet or sandy dry, but inescapably physical. It is the biological setting in which our primate species is adapted to live. When it runs out we, like any other species whose habitat vanishes, will disappear (or at least dwindle) with it.

That’s why, of the many challenges we face today, only one is truly mission-critical: restoring the natural security represented by flourishing ecosystems capable of providing us with a surplus, not a deficit, of life-sustaining habitat services. 

I’ll be writing more on this in Facts and Opinions in the weeks ahead.
Chris Wood

References and further reading:
Global Footprint Network site
FactsandOpinions story on William Rees, inventor of the Ecological Footprint