Earth Overshoot Day: We Just Entered the Red

08_13_2015_Earth Overshoot Day
Humanity this year is on a pace to use the resource equivalent of 1.6 Earths, according to Global Footprint Network. Trouble is, we only have one. NASA

As of August 13, humanity has used up all of the resources Earth is able to produce in one calendar year, and has produced more waste than Earth can absorb in that time, according to an organization that analyzed thousands of data points to come to that conclusion.

It's a striking figure: If Earth's resources—farmland, fresh water, waste and carbon absorption—were money in a bank account, it would mean we've overdrawn that account by a lot. The budget that should have lasted us for 365 days has only lasted 225 this year, according to California think tank Global Footprint Network, which has been calculating "ecological overshoot" for more than a decade. In short, we're very in the red.

"That represents an overuse of about 60 percent," says Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network. Put another way, by the end of the year, we'll have used the resources of 1.6 Earths. Of course, the problem is obvious: We only have one.

For Wackernagel, this belies a deeply counterintuitive mindset about the meaning of success and progress.

"We don't believe truly that we depend on physical reality. Our metrics and the way we think about success is all about trends of economic values," Wackernagel says. "[But] that money is only a symbol of access to a future physical reality. It's something we seem to forget. Everything is planned as if finances are the real thing, but really there's no physical reality to back up those dollars."

He adds: "Why is [German Prime Minister Angela] Merkel, for example, more worried about the euro than the fertility of crops? It's an unhealthy relationship with physical reality."

Each year, the problem grows worse, the group says. In the 1970s, when the global population hovered around 4 billion, humanity began using more resources than the Earth could replenish each year, and was producing more waste than it could absorb. Back then, Earth Overshoot Day fell in December. Each year, as population ballooned and more countries used more and more resources, the date has moved farther and farther up on the calendar. Now, on a planet with 7.2 billion people, the fateful date lands in mid-August.

Global Footprint Network calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day using 6,000 data points per country for roughly 200 countries, and then aggregates that data into a single figure. (Each country, then, also has its own overshoot day—the United States's, for example, was on July 14, meaning it uses the resources of 1.9 United States each calendar year. China uses the equivalent of 2.7 Chinas each year.)

China leads in overuse of resources using the equivalent of 2.7 Chinas each year. Global Footprint Network

If consumption patterns continue apace, by 2030, Earth Overshoot Day will creep up the calendar to land in June. But if global emissions are cut by 30 percent from today's levels by 2030, Wackernagel says, Earth Overshoot Day could be pushed back to mid-September. More of our global emissions would be able to be absorbed by the Earth's natural systems and, he says, we'd have a shot of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of global warming—a benchmark beyond which the U.N. says humanity faces "dangerous" levels of climate change.

If global emissions are cut by 30 percent from today’s levels by 2030, Wackernagel says, Earth Overshoot Day could be pushed back to mid-September. Global Footprint Network

The shift in consumption that would be required is politically unprecedented. So far, Global Footprint Network's data show that the biggest changes in consumption patterns have all come "from calamities rather than proactivity," Wackernagel says.

Take Greece, for example: "They were building up their resource demand quite quickly, and then it became more difficult to spend, and you could see a radical drop in their resource demand," he says, referring to the Greek crisis following the 2008 economic crash. Global Footprint Network data recorded a significant drop in the ecological footprint of Greece after that.

With the approach of the U.N. climate talks in December, some question whether countries can come to an agreement drastic enough to address the accelerating threat of climate change and resource over-consumption. Wackernagel is hopeful.

"It's always possible. Why would it be easier in the future? The longer we wait we'll be in a more intractable situation, with more people," he says. "The question is do we choose design or disaster."