Overcoming Earth Overshoot By Respecting Nature

Aug 21st, 2020 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.

[photo: https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org/]

[photo: https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org/]

Talk about timing.  Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s demands upon nature exceeds what Earth’s natural systems can renew in a given year, comes as California endures a wildfire hell.  Overshoot Day, however, is falling later than in past years, on August 22nd, due to the other hell the world is enduring, that of COVID-19.

Perhaps Nature is giving humanity a not-so-subtle message?

It would be easy to list all the problems facing the planet and feel total despair.  Record hot July in the U.S.  Heatwaves in Siberia and the Arctic.  Plus floods in Bangladesh and India, an oil spill in Mauritius, and deforestation in the Amazon.  The challenge is that there are so many enormous issues that it becomes difficult to process, much less take action, to address living beyond our environmental means.  Overshoot?  Well, in addition to the problems just listed, people are losing jobs, racial inequality continues, and economic inequity is worsening.

Earth Overshoot Day is a call to action, but now more than ever it needs to go further. When we talk about ways to address overshoot and lower humanity’s eco footprint, it has to include more than the usual calls to reduce consumption, fly less, eat organic and vegetarian, and switch to solar.  In other words, real change will require more than just individual actions.  These are important of course, but what is needed is global systems change and an end to resource exploitation driven by corporations and governments.


Global Footprint Network - Earth Overshoot Day


We would be wise to listen to the words of Albert Einstein, who said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Fortunately there are a lot of existing ideas to get out of overshoot mode and live in balance with the only planet we call home.   Below are some ideas to help our world of 8 billion people be better planetary citizens.

Focus on Nature-oriented solutions

The concept of Rights of Nature, grounded in indigenous practices, offers the best path forward to reversing Earth Overshoot.   Rather than treating nature as property under the law (as women and slaves once were), Rights of Nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. Simply put, it means humans are part of the web of life, and that our exploitation of natural resources cannot continue.  Indeed, centuries of exploitation of Earth’s precious resources is why we are in the predicament we find ourselves in.

Rights of Nature is a growing movement and rights-based ordinances and initiatives are finding traction at local, regional, national and international levels.  Ecuador and Bolivia are well-known for including nature’ rights in their constitution and laws a decade ago.  More recent initiatives  can be found in Bangladesh, where the Supreme Court has given all rivers in the country legal rights.  India’s courts, too, have declared the legal rights of certain ecosystems, including the Ganges River.


[photo: Wikimedia]

[photo: Wikimedia]

Another nature-oriented solution is Nature Needs Half.  In the face of the sixth mass extinction, this effort led by an international coalition is calling for protecting and inter-connecting 50% of the planet by 2030.  One of the main principles is that Nature works best when it is connected.

Important research on the achievability of the Nature Needs Half endeavor was published in BioScience a few years back.  Researchers stated that Nature Needs Half is an ambitious goal that will allow humanity to maintain a world with space for all life and the continuance of critical ecosystem services.  In the article, the experts also propose “a Global Deal for Nature—a companion to the Paris Climate Deal—to promote increased habitat protection and restoration, national- and ecoregion-scale conservation strategies, and the empowerment of indigenous peoples to protect their sovereign lands. The goal of such an accord would be to protect half the terrestrial realm by 2050 to halt the extinction crisis while sustaining human livelihoods.”

Rethinking the Global Economy

Our obsession with economic growth and consumerism – the hallmarks of globalization – is unsustainable and if we are to pull ourselves out of overshoot, a rethink of economic growth and a focus on viable alternative economies should be undertaken.  Numerous studies show that that money, beyond a quantity sufficient for basic needs, does not make us happier.

Global inequality is worsening; it is also being exacerbated by COVID-19.  Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, recently said that “Even before the virus, our societies were on shaky footing, with rising inequalities, worsening degradation of the environment, shrinking civic space, inadequate public health and untenable social frictions rooted in governance failures and a lack of opportunities.” He emphasized “And so we cannot go back to what was, but rather must turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”

The solutions are grounded in sustainable systems based on ecological economics and creating local economies. Clearly not all growth is bad.  We want to grow in well-being, good health, self-sufficiency, etc., things that benefit people and don’t exploit the planet.  We know what to do, but changing an entrenched and powerful economic system isn’t easy.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures and a long-time advocate for new economies, wrote about how to shift away from exploitative economic systems:

There are already countless grassroots localisation projects, from Sao Paulo to Sydney, that are demonstrating the way forward. From farmers’ markets and consumer-producer co-operatives to local business alliances and community finance schemes, people are reweaving the fabric of local interdependence from the ground up. Out of common sense and heartfelt intuition, they are finding innovative ways to step out of the consumer rat-race to live local lives at a human pace and scale.


[photo: © lednichenkoolga; Creative Commons Attribution License]

[photo: © lednichenkoolga; Creative Commons Attribution License]

Avoiding Despair

There is some encouragement in the fact that COVID-19 has shown that people (most of us, at least) can come together to support one another in a time of great crisis. Climate change will test if we can do that for the health of the health of all people, and the planet.

In terms of the planet’s health, it is obvious that what we’ve been doing the last few decades isn’t working that well, and certainly not fast enough. The issues must not only be reframed, but approached in a different manner, in order to truly protect our citizens, communities, and environment – including all inhabitants, human and non-human.

But don’t despair.  We all play a role, and everything we do, and don’t do, affects Earth. As we learn more about rights for Nature and setting aside land for Nature, we can continue to take action in our own lives to move next year’s Earth Overshoot Day back – not because of a pandemic, but because we are perpetuating real change.  Go to Take a Step to #MovetheDate for ideas and inspiration.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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