Running into ecological debt – Earth Overshoot Day 2010

Apart from playing host to one of the most unconventional election days in Australia’s history, August 21st also marked a rather unfortunate milestone – when humanity consumed all of the renewable resources that nature has been able to generate during this year.

Earth Overshoot Day is an initiative of the new economics foundation and the Global Footprint Network, and signifies the day in which human demand has outstripped the annual biocapacity of the Earth. Since the first Earth Overshoot Day in 1987, human consumption has been continuously growing beyond the sustainable limits of the planet –  it now takes one year and five months to generate the resources and the CO2  absorption capacity to meet that our annual requirements.

This year’s global overshoot milestone has come a full month earlier compared to last year – meaning the rate of resource depletion is becoming more rapid, and our ecological debt is worsening. It’s been known for some time that we are living beyond our means, but the growth in global consumption shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Indeed, continued economic growth (measured by the production and consumption of goods and services, or GDP) is necessary to keep our current global economy afloat. How can the maintenance of the economy be reconciled with the very obvious need to preserve our biosphere? This is clearly a dilemma, as the key issues facing humanity are really the symptoms of global overconsumption:

Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Technological advancement is often cited as a way to consume resources more efficiently, leading to a relative decoupling of economic growth from consumption. But even if growth occurred at a slower pace, is it possible for the economy to grow continuously on a finite planet?

The folks at the new economics foundation and a growing number of other organisations and  individuals think that an alternative is possible – an economy which grows in quality, rather than quantity. A steady state economy is defined as one which remains within the biophysical limits of the planet – and is measured by indicators other than GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator.

Advocates of the model such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson think that a steady state economy is not only possible, but necessary in order to transition to a more sustainable, equitable, and happier society. Such a grand transition seems unthinkable in a world which is hooked on growth, and would be vigorously opposed by those with vested interests – working towards action on climate change is difficult enough! But perhaps the prospect of questioning growth is not quite as crazy as initially thought:

It has often been said that the lack of immediacy is the climate movement’s major handicap. The economic crisis we just faced certainly didn’t lack immediacy. There’s nothing more immediate than losing your house, your job, your livelihood, as so many did when the housing bubble burst.

Moreover, people weren’t oblivious to the fact that the crisis was caused by a bubble – by unsustainable growth in a certain sector of the economy. Public confidence in our economic model has already been shaken. To help precipitate its collapse, we need to start connecting the dots between the housing bubble and the much larger bubble that’s bound to burst when it collides in the very near future with the very sharp reality of a devastated planet.

Whatever the case may be, there is a lot of work to be done if we ever plan on living sustainably on the one planet we have – that is, not unless we depart for space within the next century.