Managing the world’s ecological resources is a commitment. It’s about making individual and community-level environmental choices from among an overwhelming number of challenges and outcomes. Are any of these choices truly clear, unambiguous and effective? Sustainable solutions demand clarity. Partnerships make sure our choices lead to effective solutions.
Understanding resource demand vs. supply
Not all consumption has an equally positive impact. This is obvious to ordinary consumers who actively work on adopting basic lifestyle changes, such as recycling paper. No wonder Earth Overshoot Day is both an alarming deadline and an underrecognized measure of human (negative) impact.
In 2018, the Earth Overshoot Day fell on the 1st of August – the day by which a year’s worth of the planet’s resources has already been used. (The date has been creeping up the calendar every year, although at a slowing rate.)
What is Earth Overshoot Day?
Earth Overshoot Day is an annual awareness campaign hosted and calculated by the international Global Footprint Network, which develops research-based methodological standards to:
1) determine when the population’s demand for ecological assets exceeds the ecosystem’s supply of resources and services; 2) support decision-makers who must make informed choices when curbing/promoting certain activities.
The primary question is: for how many days of a given year can the Earth’s biocapacity (i.e. biologically productive forests, cropland and sea area) adequately provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint (i.e. demand for food, fresh products, space for infrastructure)?
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day
The rest of the year corresponds to global overshoot. That’s 5 months in 2018. We have exhausted a year’s worth of resources in just 7 months.
Seeking leaders for strong partnerships
Leadership is an important driver of sustainable development. People in leadership positions can coordinate different areas of interest and create effective partnerships.
A recent NYTimes article declares that a lack of leadership in the last 2 decades has slowed down our ability to effectively govern the environment. “[nearly] everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979 : the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet.”
“We understood decades ago, what failure would mean for global temperatures, coastlines, agriculture, immigration patterns, and the world economy.”
Good leaders help us recognize that key drivers of sustainability work at different levels; and that interaction and partnerships are crucial to sort out which policies are effective. To further clarify, let’s move away from individual choices and consider policymaking in general.
Trade-offs in sustainable development
At a policy level, choices are clear when an intervention to advance a goal has accompanying benefits in other goals. For example, an investment in girls’ education (SDG4) has clear collateral benefits in economic growth (SDG8), equality (SDG5), and health (SDG3).
In other policy areas, however, choices for action may be less clear. For example, housing is a social policy tool, which can have both positive and negative impacts on human health and the environment. Political pressure may result in building more housing for the poor, which may lead to clearing off forests or cropland; forced relocation of disadvantaged populations from centre city to peripheral areas; and/or simply more damage to the environment from the use of concrete which contributes to global warming.
In other words, coordinating policies in the four key sustainability areas – food, population, energy, and urbanization – presents unavoidable trade-offs. In other words, it is not always possible to (re)allocate resources in a way to make any individual or community better off, without making at least one individual or other community worse off.
It’s important to understand these trade-offs at all levels (individual, community, national or global); before making consumer choices. In all four areas, different global actors will have to come together under formal partnerships. Collaborating is the only way to sort out priority areas that reinforce one another’s solutions.
Partnerships, like the network behind Earth Overshoot Day, provide a comprehensive way to understand competing demands on our planet’s ecosystems.