7 August 2016

Op-ed for earth overshoot day

By Sandra Kanck

Sandra Kanck is the national president of Sustainable Population Australia.

AUGUST 8, sadly, is Earth Overshoot Day for 2016.

I say ‘sadly’ because this annual milestone is falling on an earlier day each year, and that is a bad thing.

Overshoot is a term that ecologists use to describe the situation where people consume more than the Earth can provide on an ongoing basis.

Once we have consumed beyond this point we are effectively eating into our resource reserves, much like a farmer who takes out more water from a dam or groundwater table than the rains can replace.

We can do this for a while, but eventually the dam runs dry.

On a global scale, humanity has been consuming resources (and producing waste) in overshoot mode well before the concept of Earth Overshoot Day was founded in 1970 by the UK think tank New Economics Foundation.

In 2006 humanity reached overshoot in October; in 2008 it was in September; and in 2010 it was in late August.

Unfortunately, this overconsumption is happening early earlier each year  with no end in sight to this trend.

Political and economic leaders seem to have no understanding of ecological limits, apart from a growing recognition that something needs to be done about climate change – which is simply another symptom of overshoot.

In Australia and globally, concern is high about a lack of GDP growth (consumption) leading to low inflation and low wages growth.

Interest rates have been slashed around the world in an attempt to stimulate spending and investment at a time when – at least from an ecological point of view – we need far less consumption.

There is therefore a disconnect between what the Earth can sustain and what our current economic system demands.

A reasonable question must follow: do we ditch the planet for a new one or replace or modify our economic system?

Humanity is reaching overshoot earlier each year, despite low GDP growth, because the Earth is host to an extra 1.5 million people each week, or about 80 million each year.

This is happening despite a reduction in the rate of population growth in most of the advanced economies of the world – although a reduction in the rate of increase does not mean there is no increase.

In Australia, for instance, we have been experiencing unusually high population growth for almost two decades, largely through government policies of high net migration.

We also have population growth through so-called natural increase – births minus deaths – making up 40-45% of the total increase). These extra people are almost universally welcomed by government and business as they result in a continual increase in GDP – meaning we avoid recession – but this does not necessarily translate into an increase of GDP per capita, which is what could benefit an individual in purely economic terms.

However this focus on GDP, whether broadly or in per capita terms, fails to consider the much broader issue of ecological sustainability in general, and overshoot in particular.

It is as if policymakers are in complete denial of the problem, or, insofar as they recognise a problem, they expect some miraculous technology to come along to break the nexus between ever-increasing consumption and ecological damage.

Environmental groups like Sustainable Population Australia say that such wishful thinking is not only fanciful, but is extremely dangerous, as the lack of effective action on climate change shows.

It is high time that policymakers viewed the Earth as a spaceship hurtling through space with finite resources – although some of these resources are renewable.

It makes no sense to consume our resources on our spaceship faster than they can be renewed, and it makes no sense to produce waste faster than they can be recycled or absorbed by Earth’s systems.

And it certainly makes no sense to keep filling up the spaceship with more and more passengers such that every passenger’s wellbeing is ultimately compromised.

Yet that is what is happening while ever we are in overshoot mode.

On Earth Overshoot Day, let’s recognise the problem and demand solutions from each other and our leaders.

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