Meaning behind Earth Overshoot Day

October 12, 2011

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

During the first day of the Bioenergy Conference in Lidkoping, Sweden, a speaker reminded us that Sept. 27, the day of the conference, was Earth Overshoot Day. The use of the term by a public official caught our attention.

The purpose of the date is to point out that we are now using Earth’s resources at a rate faster than that at which Earth can regenerate them. Unfortunately, designating a specific day could create the faulty impression that for most of the year we live within the bounds of Earth’s productivity, then suddenly become wasteful. But Earth Overshoot Day points to the date at which we have used the resources that we should have used during the entire year.

For most of human history, people lived within Earth’s bounds, using no more than it could produce or regenerate. Then, during the 20th century, we began using more than Earth could produce. In 1987, the first Earth Overshoot Day was designated.

William Caton, ecological sociologist, first coined the term Overshoot. He felt that ecological collapse caused by overuse was similar to economic collapse. During what he labeled “the age of exuberance” (since 1492), people believed in the limitlessness of Earth’s resources. We now know Earth’s resources are not limitless, but we still behave as though they are.

Human activity now uses the equivalent of one-and-a-half Earths. If current trends continue, we will use the equivalent of two Earths by mid-century and, eventually, the Earth’s biocapacity will collapse.

What the concept of Overshoot calls attention to is the need to lessen both our consumption of natural resources and the rate at which we dump wastes into the environment. Examples include depleting forests, overfishing the seas and adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than it can process.

Sweden made the choice to become sustainable through bioenergy without a drop in lifestyle. Their aim is to create a society that meets its needs without compromising the ability of future societies to meet theirs. They chose to improve technology through supportive renewable energy policies. They place high importance on healthy children; they discourage tobacco and alcohol.

Individual car use is discouraged by having a high tax on gasoline, which roughly doubles the cost of what we pay for gas in the U.S. Their electric rail and biogas-powered buses provide excellent service. They encourage the use of bicycles for local transportation — we counted hundreds of bikes at the city’s rail station and their equivalent of our junior college. They feel they gain significantly from their policies by keeping more money in their communities and providing more jobs by developing local biofuels.

Some people have attempted to reverse the overuse of resources. The late Dr. Wangari Maathai chose to plant trees to counter deforestation; others choose to be sustainable in an individualistic manner through taking personal responsibility to make less impact and by off-grid living.

We can start by taking personal responsibility for our own impact, and from there, move to the neighborhood and community. We can each calculate our own ecological footprint (ecologicalfootprint.org).

We can react to the loss of biodiversity by helping maintain what we have in this area. We can enjoy the simple pleasures of nature without destroying them. Hike, canoe or simply sit and learn to appreciate the parks, forest preserves and natural areas protected by those who strive to maintain the quality of life in the Rock River region.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 12-18, 2011, issue

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