For most people, Aug. 2, 2023 has been a day that's gone largely unremarked upon. But for the planet as a whole, it was a very big—and very bad—date. Aug. 2 marked this year’s so-called Earth Overshoot Day—the day on which the annual resources humanity extracts from the earth exceeds the planet’s ability to regenerate them in the same year. Haul more fish from the ocean than can breed in their place? That’s an overshoot. Pump more fresh water from a lake or river or aquifer than can be replaced by rain, snow melt, or groundwater? That’s an overshoot.
Exactly when each year’s Earth Overshoot Day occurs is calculated by researchers whom the Earth Overshoot Day organization partners with at the nonprofit Global Footprint Network (GFN). GFN investigators run equations they have dubbed “ecological footprint accounting,” factoring together the planet’s biocapacity (basically everything it has on offer on its shelves) and how quickly humans are likely to clear those shelves based on current and past levels of consumption.
“You need to measure what you manage and the ecological footprint accounting methodology allows humanity to do just that,” said GFN CEO Steven Tebbe, when he was named to his post late last year. “This metric is essential to finding the right balance between resource depletion and regeneration.”
Humans have not always been such gluttons for resources. The Global Footprint Network has data going back more than half a century, and in that time, the overshoot day has come earlier and earlier in the year. In 1971, for example, Earth Overshoot Day did not occur until late December, meaning that when it came to resources, humans were living mostly within their means. By 1979, the date had moved back to mid-October. By 2001, it was in mid-September, and in the 22 years since, we’ve pushed it back by more than another month. At our current rate of consumption, it would take 1.7 earths to meet our annual resource extraction needs.
Different countries, though, have different consumption habits. If everyone lived like Qatar or Luxembourg, earth overshoot day would have landed on Feb. 10 and Feb. 14, respectively. If the world consumed resources like the U.S., Canada, or the United Arab Emirates, earth overshoot day would be March 13. The best examples—using resources the most sustainably—are Indonesia, Ecuador, and Jamaica, with overshoot days of Dec. 3, Dec. 6, and Dec. 20, respectively.
There are potential solutions to the problem, the GFN and the Earth Overshoot Day organization stress. Cities, for example, where 70% to 80% of the world’s population is expected to live by 2050, could be made physically more compact, provide carbon-neutral public transportation, and retrofit buildings so that they are more energy efficient; all of this could reduce—or eventually eliminate—the need for extracting fossil fuels.
Food production could be made more sustainable too. Each year, more than 30%—or 1.3 billion tons—of food produced for human consumption is wasted; forecasting global food demand more accurately and producing only what we need would relieve some of the planting and extraction. Stabilizing the global population is one other area that could use attention. Holding the number of people on the planet to 7.7 billion—just below what it is now—would add 49 days to Earth Overshoot Day by 2050, moving it from Aug. 2 to Sept. 20.
None of these measures are easy; all of them are essential. Humans are a hungry and, too often, grasping species. Our earth is paying a very steep price for that.
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