Comment: How would you manage for the rest of the year, if you had to stop working, or close down your business, on April 19? You would have to live off what you had previously harvested, stored, or planted up to that date, or created yourself to trade with others. Oh, and no vehicle use after that date either. But that’s oka, because no businesses or recreational facilities would be open anyway.
The April 19, 2022 date is relevant because it is the day that we New Zealanders, on average, used up all the bio-capacity (sources and sinks) that New Zealand is projected to regenerate for the entire year. This is known as Earth Overshoot Day.
Overshoot is a measure of how much we are transgressing biophysical limits; how much ecosystem damage we do. Globally, it is July 28 this year. We reached it much earlier than most nations, and a day earlier than we did last year. Not a good look for anyone who cares about New Zealand’s future.
Most of us would find it difficult to live comfortably from April 20 to December 31 under those conditions. The purpose of this little mind-experiment is to give us a sense of the dramatic changes we collectively need to make to live sustainably, within the regenerative capacity of the land and water that sustains us. Obviously, we cannot just shut down and hibernate after April 19.
What are the options?
To live sustainably, the impact we have on our ecosystems has to be reduced by two-thirds. If that seems like a big ask, it is. But it is also what is required to make any claim to actually live within the biophysical limits of Aotearoa.
Let’s unpack this concept of Overshoot Day to understand it better and come to grips with how to move it to December 31 every year. We are living far beyond our ecological means and most of us are unaware of this. The inevitable consequences of doing that are not pretty, and action is urgent.
Fortunately, action is possible. Well over half (61 percent) of our global ecological footprint (a measure of how much of nature’s regenerative capacities we use) comes from our carbon emissions. So reducing our use of fossil fuels would both move us toward a safe climate, and make a significant contribution to our overall sustainability. Climate is not the only sustainability challenge we face. We need to be paying attention to our total environmental impact.
The more money we have, and especially the more we spend, the more damage we do.
Because New Zealand’s ecological footprint is so high, and our per capita energy consumption is among the highest in the world, we have lots of opportunities to reduce our footprint, and push Overshoot Day toward the end of the year where it belongs.
Another important aspect of Overshoot Day for New Zealand is that it represents an average level of consumption. Averages can hide wide disparities, as they do in this situation. Given the level of inequality in this country, and the direct relationship between financial wealth and exceeding planetary boundaries, there would be large differences in people’s ecological footprint, and hence their personal overshoot day. For many of us, our personal overshoot day might be closer to the end of the year, meaning we are closer to living sustainably, and a few changes in our lifestyle could make a real difference.
At the other end of the overshoot spectrum would be the rich listers, whose ecological overshoot is very likely to be considerably higher than the average New Zealander. Their personal overshoot day could be even earlier in the year than April 19. Their continued high levels of consumption throughout the rest of the year would be a major contributor to our ecological overshoot. They are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the ecological damage, and thus have an even greater responsibility to reduce their impact.
But you don’t have to be a rich lister to make a disproportionate contribution to overshoot. The more money we have, and especially the more we spend, the more damage we do.
If you are courageous enough to estimate your personal overshoot day, here is a calculator. This could be a helpful place to start taking this issue seriously. It’s free, fast, fun and informative.
Reducing our energy consumption would improve both climate and overshoot; climate change is just one example of overshoot.
Of course, it is not only individuals and households that consume and contribute to overshoot. So do businesses and other organisations, including central and local governments. Some organisations are beginning to monitor their greenhouse gas or carbon emissions, which is an important step.
The footprint calculator can help these organisations, as well as families, to come to grips with their overall environmental impact. This is important because being well-informed can help plan for changes that will address not only climate change, but also broader ecosystem degradation.
Here’s an example of how the broader perspective can inform planning and decision making. An exclusive or dominant focus on climate issues would suggest that a simple conversion to renewable energy technologies are a high priority. A broader ecological overshoot perspective tells us that while these technologies are likely to have a place in our move toward sustainability, the total amount of energy we use is also likely critical. The more energy we use the more environmental impact, regardless of whether we use fossil or renewable energy.
Reducing our energy consumption would improve both climate and overshoot; climate change is just one example of overshoot. This broader perspective helps to ensure our actions don’t inadvertently make things worse.
Fortunately, there are a wide range of things families and organisations can do to reduce their footprint and move their overshoot day to the end of the year. Information is available to tell us which actions will likely have the greatest impact.
The overshoot challenge is a big one and there are some obstacles. Fortunately, most of them are in our heads, and therefore controllable.
Being aware that ecological overshoot is a serious problem is one obstacle. You would be hard-pressed to learn about overshoot in any government documents, business reports, or even in the media. And there certainly aren’t any soap operas based on overshoot – it’s just not part of popular culture.
Yet there is vast research literature dealing with overshoot, and accessible information to help us understand it and decide on actions. Such a serious issues deserves considerably more attention.
There is considerable evidence that we can live well with less stuff. It’s a matter of getting our heads around this.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to dealing with overshoot is the sense we may be losing the good life, or have to relinquish things we desire. It’s true that living within biophysical limits will restrict the material goods humanity can consume sustainably. But living sustainably will involve material goods that meet our needs, if not all our wishes. The wishes, of course, have largely been manufactured by companies seeking profit, rather than providing quality goods and services to meet our needs, or actually contributing to our wellbeing.
The irony of this situation is that research shows genuine happiness and life satisfaction come not from pursuing a materialistic orientation, but from a variety of non-material activities that contribute to community as well as individual wellbeing. The consumerism we have been conditioned to embrace has led us away from these genuine satisfiers, and is designed to make us want to replace them with quick fixes that wear off so we have to return for more.
What might at first seem like giving up some aspects of a lifestyle we desire may well turn out to improve our lives in deeper and unexpected ways. Try it and see for yourself.