Arcosanti - An Urban Laboratory in the Arizona Desert.

Earth Overshoot Day

by Jeff Stein

August 20 marked “Earth Overshoot Day” 2013. This day has occurred each year since the 1970’s, a day on the calendar when “our resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s ability to replenish those resources.” We have computers; we can calculate this.

Around Arcosanti when we talk about consumption and the existing culture that was designed to induce it, we point to a lean model for remedying it that we are trying to create with this project. The argument is about creating a global equity and how we can design it by shrinking our urban – and thus our ecological - footprint, as in: “Look, here in the US 5% of the world’s population consumes 20% of Earth’s resources. If we expect the whole world to live equitably at that same frenetic level of consumption, we will need 4 earths to support us.”  It’s a useful image that utilizes third grade math to make a point about the future.

There are difficulties.  First, we won’t be gifted with four Earth’s to support us anytime soon. And beyond that, how many Americans want to alter our high-consumption lifestyles? At Arcosanti we are actively working toward a lean alternative, and we are very much the exception.  

And so we see wars for scarce resources, read about global economic collapse, the 1% vs 99%, and of 47 million Americans on food stamps, more than a billion people worldwide living in urban squatters’ settlements, more than two billion lacking access to the resources required to meet their basic needs.  

The four Earths image is about the future, which as Paolo Soleri liked to point out, never really does exist. You can plan for a future, work toward it, but it cannot be predicted, and besides, whatever happens, the future will be some other generation’s present, not ours.  So far that’s the response globally.

This brings us to our present and the annual Earth Overshoot. For a few years now the Global Footprint Network along with the New Economics Foundation, has been marking Earth Overshoot Day. As of August 20, “humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year and is now operating in overdraft,” say spokespersons for these organizations. Global Footprint Network tracks humanity’s demand on the planet’s ecological resources (such as food provisions, raw materials and carbon dioxide absorption) — its Ecological Footprint — against nature’s ability to replenish those resources and absorb waste. Global Footprint Network’s data show that, in less than eight months, we have used as much nature as our planet can regenerate this entire year.

The rest of the year corresponds to “overshoot.” Through this fall and winter we will keep-up an ecological deficit by continuing to deplete stocks of fish, trees and other resources, and accumulate waste such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. As the Global Footprint Network puts it, “As our level of consumption, or resource budget, grows, the interest we are paying on this mounting ecological debt — shrinking forests, biodiversity loss, fisheries collapse, food shortages, degraded land productivity and the build-up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans — not only burdens the environment but also undermines our economies. Climate change — a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans — is the most widespread impact of ecological overspending.”

We cannot pretend to produce "qualitative easing" to replicate the resources of the Earth.  Resources - life support - provided by the Earth are neither expendable nor made of paper.  This deficit cannot be "written off" or hidden.

So here we are. We are not looking toward some future Earth overshoot; we are in the midst of it; not looking ahead to the largest species die-off in earth’s history; we are in the midst of it. By not preparing for global warming and the changes it brings to land and water and patterns of inhabitation, we are adrift and in the midst of them.

We might be able to design our way out of some of this. Paolo Soleri’s message on a hand-lettered sign at his Corcoran Museum ARCOLOGY exhibition in 1970 still holds true: “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment,” the poster began, “Join us.”  Please do join us by building at Arcosanti, thinking clearly about the issues in your own community, helping your neighbors alter an an American Dream that no longer quite works for the world.