Earth Overshoot – Can Our Society Change Course?

Aug 1st, 2017 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.

Another Earth Overshoot Day is upon us, this one coming August 2nd, even earlier than last year. This date, calculated by Global Footprint Network, arrives earlier with each passing year, as humanity uses up natural resources faster than the Earth can replenish in a year. Currently we are using the ecological resources of 1.7 Earths. And if everyone lived like an American? Well, we’d be using up the resources of 5 Earths.


earth overshoot logo


It doesn’t really matter who we live like but rather how we live. And we are living badly, brazenly, and beyond our means, and we will pay a high price for it. Nay, we already are, judging by recent headlines.

Take, for example, this Guardian story on water and Kenya, with a headline that should grab most people’s attention – “Thirsty city: after months of water rationing Nairobi may run dry.”  Sixty percent of Nairobi lacks reliable water (emphasis added). The city’s current population of 3.4 million (in city proper) is expected to double by 2030. Talk about overshoot.

There are multiple reasons for this situation, including drought, climate change, and poor irrigation and farming practices. Yet it also comes down to a growing population and overconsumption and waste of precious resources.

A few days later the New York Times also ran a disturbing article on problems in Kenya and much of Africa that have been caused by exploitation of resources and people.

In “Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ Across Africa,” the Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman penned a lengthy story on how climate change, soil degradation, conflict, land grabs, and rising wealth and consumption are shrinking habitat and arable land across the African continent.

Logging in the Central African Republic [photo: JG Collomb, World Resources Institute, Creative Commons]

Logging in the Central African Republic [photo: JG Collomb, World Resources Institute, Creative Commons]

It’s an excellent piece representative of Earth Overshoot Day and all that it stands for today. But if you only read the following paragraph by Gettleman, it tells you all you need to know about our global footprint:

Population swells, climate change, soil degradation, erosion, poaching, global food prices and even the benefits of affluence are exerting incredible pressure on African land. They are fueling conflicts across the continent, from Nigeria in the west to Kenya in the east — including here in Laikipia, a wildlife haven and one of Kenya’s most beautiful areas.

People are under grave threat, land is becoming scarce and overexploited, and wildlife is being decimated, because of reckless human behavior and how we treat each other and other species.

He calls out the idyllic version of Africa as one of vast, endless savannahs as an illusion, and he’s right. Those idyllic landscapes that remain are now oases in a pool of humanity. Africans of course have the right to develop and have healthy, thriving populations in its cities and rural communities. Yet it also needs flourishing wild areas for other species. At the very least, we need forests like in the Congo Basin to soak up all the carbon we release into the atmosphere.

The continent is facing a perfect storm of problems caused by past and current imperial, economic and resource exploitation, and we as a global society need to change course, in all our countries.

There are some solutions touched upon in the article, namely voluntary family planning, which is also the answer to many of the world’s problems. Part and parcel of that is empowering women and girls, especially through education.


In the fishing community of Wanseko, Uganda, fisherfolk face many threats to their livelihoods and community [photo: Suzanne York]

In the fishing community of Wanseko, Uganda, fisherfolk face many threats to their livelihoods and community [photo: Suzanne York]

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a wildlife activist in northern Kenya quoted in the Times article, said “The problem is too many people, too many cattle and too little planning.” It encapsulates a lot of our problems in one simple sentence – the world is in overshoot because we haven’t adequately invested and supported family planning services and reproductive rights, chosen industrial agriculture over smallholder farmers, and pursued a growth at all costs mentality resulting in great inequity.

Ultimately, it comes down to living within planetary means instead of continued overexploitation of resources. Perhaps as the severity of problems increase it will spur humanity to take action. We’ve certainly been given plenty of notice to change our ways and put an end to overshoot.

Curious about your personal ecological footprint?  Calculate it here.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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