Image courtesy of Global Footprint Network

Signals and more signals.  Our planet continues to send us visceral warning signs of the stress that our unsustainable systems and behaviors are causing. 

Throughout July we observed many such signals – including blistering heat waves, numerous fires, and devastating floods.  The United Kingdom saw its hottest day on record with temperatures exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit – disrupting transportation systems and even leading to the temporary closure of London’s Luton airport due to a melting runway.  Multiple fires raged across Europe and throughout the western U.S, while other parts of the U.S. experienced extreme flooding.  And in Italy, climbers were killed due to the collapse of a glacier amid a prolonged period of high temperatures.

Indeed, it seems that we are increasingly speaking in terms of “wake-up calls” for action on climate and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Citing the gravity of our current course, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted that “half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms, and wildfires” and that “no nation is immune.” 

That’s a serious wake-up call.

July was also significant in terms of another signal, as the Global Footprint Network marked July 28th as Earth Overshoot Day for 2022 – the day in which humanity’s demand for biological resources exceeds the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. 

Quite simply, Earth Overshoot Day reinforces the fact that we are living well beyond our ecological means.  And since we don’t have another Earth to fall back on (i.e., there is no Planet B), our current way of living is clearly unsustainable. 

It’s also irresponsible, as our actions are detracting from the prosperity of future generations.    

If we drew a parallel to individual finances (think financial health), the fact that Earth Overshoot Day falls on July 28th indicates that we would have spent our entire annual budget 60% of the way through the year.  In that case, what would we do to survive for the remainder of the year?  We would likely seek to borrow.  And in the case of planetary health, we’re borrowing against our future, and that of the next generation.

The Global Footprint Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day each year, dating all the way back to 1971, and the trend is extremely worrisome, indicating quite clearly the speed at which our unsustainable consumption and production actions are negatively impacting the environment. 

For example, in 1971, Earth Overshoot Day fell on December 25th, meaning that the world had just begun to surpass the planet’s annual carrying capacity.  Ten years later, Earth Overshoot Day moved forward to November 15th, and ten years after that, it moved a full month earlier to October 13th.  And in  successive decade intervals, Earth Overshoot Day has continued to fall earlier on the calendar – advancing to September 24th in 2001, August 4th in 2011, and most recently, July 28th in 2022. 

A July 28th date indicates that we are operating at a rate of 1.75 planets – which we know isn’t possible for the long term.  The extreme temperatures we are seeing, along with droughts, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss, are manifestations of our unsustainable behavior and unsustainable systems (particularly food and energy).  Again, we are operating beyond Earth’s ecological capacity despite the fact that we do not have additional planets as back-ups. 

It’s also notable that the Global Footprint Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day at the country level (Country Overshoot Days) as well, and that there is considerable differentiation between the countries of the world in terms of their impact on the Earth’s biocapacity.  A specific country’s overshoot day is the point at which Earth Overshoot Day would occur if the entire world consumed like the people in that country. 

For example, overshoot day for the U.S. this year is March 13th – so if all of the countries of the world consumed in the same manner as the U.S., we would exhaust the Earth’s regenerative capacity in a little over 2 months.  And we would need five Earths to support that level of consumption.

Not surprisingly, overshoot days for other highly developed countries are early on the calendar as well – such as Belgium (March 26th), Sweden (April 3rd), Germany (May 4th), France (May 5th), and the United Kingdom (May 19th).

On the other hand, overshoot days for less developed countries are much later – Brazil (August 12th), Peru (September 3rd), Vietnam (September 12th), and Colombia (November 8th). 

This divergence between the impact of developed countries and less developed countries on biocapacity is, of course, a source of conflict as we seek to spur collaboration between nations to rein in greenhouse gas emissions – as developing countries credibly point to the developed world’s long advancement on the back of cheap fossil fuels and externality-laden production processes. 

The upshot of Earth Overshoot Day falling on July 28th, however, and of the many country overshoot days that fall much earlier on the calendar, is that the nations of the world must collaborate to accelerate action toward sustainable systems so that we can provide for the needs of humanity within planetary boundaries.  This is the heart of the “feeding 10 billion by 2050” challenge. 

Like the highly visible signals we are receiving in the form of fires, floods, droughts, and biodiversity loss, Earth Overshoot Day is a signal of the need for urgent change.

The Global Footprint Network is providing a tremendous service by calculating and evangelizing on the concept of Earth Overshoot Day.  It is a valuable concept that succinctly encapsulates humanity’s impact on the planet, and it is an annual barometer of the direction of that impact.  It highlights the urgency with which we must develop sustainable systems – and transition to sustainable consumption and production patterns – in order to operate within the Earth’s ecological capacity. 

There’s a simple message here: we have to move Earth Overshoot Day back on the calendar, quickly

We’re all receiving multiple signals of the consequences of operating beyond the Earth’s regenerative capacity.  They are incredibly visible – fires, floods, droughts, ocean pollution, melting glaciers, species decline, and now even melting airport runways. 

Our everyday lives are now being increasingly disrupted as a direct result of the fact that we are overshooting planetary boundaries.

We’re all seeing the signals.  And we can’t “unsee” them. 

These signals are powerful calls to action.  Addressing the underlying challenges can seem daunting, and even scary.  But we must overcome the discomfort and embrace the opportunity behind them.  The Global Footprint Network even helps here, too, noting the power of possibility in numerous solutions to address climate change and biological resource constraints in sectors such as food, energy, and cities.  The organization also provides the concept of one-planet prosperity for the needed transition, where we strive to maximize the human development index (humanity’s prosperity and well-being) within the constraints of our one Earth’s resource capacity.

The bottom line is that Earth Overshoot Day shows that the nations of the world must come together to address the ecological deficit, and in the process, we will address climate change and multiple issues underpinning the SDGs. 

It seems somewhat trite to say that we no longer have a choice, and that inaction is not an option.  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres puts it much better:  “We have a choice – collective action or collective suicide.”

Regarding Earth Overshoot Day, that’s a powerful motivational framing for global collaboration to  #movethedate.