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OVERSHOOT PRIMER, IMPLICATIONS, MEDIA RESPONSE, AND RESOURCES

Responding to Overshoot

While unknown by most, overshoot shapes everything

Ecological overshoot refers to the overuse of nature by people. More specifically, it is the state in which human demand, within a given time period, exceeds the amount ecosystems regenerate in the same time period. It means that demand is larger than what ecosystems regenerate. By using more than what ecosystems can renew, humanity is depleting the biosphere, and becomes a major force shaping the planet’s condition. Global overshoot, with global demand exceeding total regeneration of the biosphere, has occurred at least since the early 1970s. The resulting impacts have moved humanity into the “Anthropocene.”

 

Overshoot is possible because ecosystems’ accumulated stocks can be depleted. Examples of overshoot include cutting trees faster than the forest can regenerate them, or overgrazing pastures. Symptoms of current global overshoot include deforestation, overfishing, groundwater depletion, soil loss, and accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As global depletion is not a long-term option given the limited size of accumulated stocks and limited capacities of waste sinks, global overshoot will inevitably end. The question is only whether it ends by design or disaster. Most likely, it will be a combination of both.

 

Overshoot analysis uses as its lens regenerative resources, because they are the most limiting physical factor for the human economy. The reason is that the majority of human activities are in active competition for what ecosystems can regenerate. It is not just competition for food, but also the competing demand for carbon sequestration from fossil fuel burning (it is this waste absorption side that is most limiting factor for fossil fuel use, not the amounts left underground). And the competing demand for space that accommodates roads and houses etc. Even access to minerals is limited by that activity’s demand for regeneration. Most minerals are plentiful underground, and it is the effort to dig them up and concentrate them that puts a significant burden on the biosphere. It is the tolerance for this additional burden on the biosphere that limits mineral and ore extraction. Therefore, most “environmental challenges” and associated impacts boil down to being a competing use of regeneration.

 

In essence, overshoot makes clear that the challenge we face with climate, water, food, energy etc. is ultimately a biological challenge stemming from the mismatch between how voracious our economies have become and how much nature can provide.

Overshoot will end

Because the accumulated stock of nature is finite, overshoot will inevitably end as stock get depleted. The question, therefore, is not whether it will end, only how. It can end by design or by disaster – most likely it will be a combination of both.

 

Following the insight that we are entering a predictable future of climate change and resource constraints, preparing for such a future is in one’s best self-interest. Effective preparations are also, most likely, helping to reduce global pressures. Ending overshoot by design is not only preferable for all members of society, but also brings key benefits to the designers and implementers.

Image by Untitled Photo

“Given overshoot, do you also provide parachutes?”

Absolutely. There are plenty of "parachutes". Such meaningful responses are helpful when facing overshoot. Because the biggest risk is ignoring overshoot, not overshoot itself.

What are those "parachutes"? It is all these things, all these capacities, all these assets that are able to operate in the predictable future of climate change and resource constraints. The most valuable of those are the ones which are both profitable (which means they can persist and expend), and which, as they expand, reduce global overshoot even more.

Global Footprint Network offers an overwhelmingly long list of such options under the rubric "Power of Possibility". For each of the examples or domains, it estimates how many minutes, hours or days these possibilities delay Earth Overshoot Day. Which parachute is your preferred one?

Overshoot raises questions, and also provides some answers

Overshoot raises many fundamental questions, including: How can we robustly measure overshoot? What is the materially limiting factor for the human economy? Where exactly are the limits? And how long can we be in overshoot? Are there substitutes for biological inputs? How does overshoot affect long-term regeneration of ecosystems? What might it mean for me, my community, my city, my company, my country? And specifically, from an economic perspective: What is becoming valuable?

 

Indeed, the economic consequences of persistent overshoot are striking. They seem both obvious and avoidable, if we prepare for overshoot. Overshoot produces two main consequences: : With climate change and resource constraints it becomes increasingly hard to resupply our stores. The other impact is Overshoot also erodes the value of all assets that are not fit to operate in a world of increasing climate change and resource constraints. This value loss leads to economic stagnation. The combination of these two erosive forces is called ‘stagflation.’ [nation & in] Economically and metaphorically speaking, we are ‘burning our candle from both ends’: Everyday life is getting more expensive while our wealth dwindles. The consequences are even more dramatic for lower-income populations.

 

Hence the fundamental question that helps me navigate the overshoot conundrum: What is becoming valuable?

You'll gain no benefit from waiting for global consensus

Just because the latest climate COP meeting did not produce many results, many feel discouraged since action on climate change, according to them, requires global consensus, and overarching binding commitments.

While such a consensus may indeed accelerate meaningful action, waiting for such a consensus is harmful, particularly for those who wait. Because they will not be prepared for the predictable future of climate change and resource constraints. Read more about why waiting would hurt you, and what therefore the good news about overshoot is.

Overshoot is barely understood

If you have not heard of "overshoot", you are not alone. Still, given what is at stake, it is surprising that the concept of overshoot is hardly recognized or featured in the media and public discussions. The term "overshoot" is not known by many, and even fewer recognize it as the key dynamic driving ecological depletion.

To illustrate, I analyzed the prominence of the term in global media for 2021. Results are similar for other years.

 

In a search effectuated in April 2022 using media analytics service of the Meltwater company, I found that throughout all of 2021 only 590 news articles on the web mentioned “ecological overshoot”. Surprisingly, “Ecological Footprint”, a metric used for overshoot, is found in far more articles (23,000 in 2021). “Carbon footprint” appears in even more articles (1 million in 2021), although it is merely one component of the Ecological Footprint and ignores the biological nature of the climate challenge, thereby providing no insights about overshoot.

 

Society’s ignorance of the overshoot dynamic is further demonstrated by the fact that “SDGs” or “sustainable development goals”, which are just one potential strategy to counteract overshoot, were found in 1.1 million articles in that year. This emphasis on SDGs, in absence of explaining overshoot, is particularly ironic since poverty eradication is possibly most severely threatened by overshoot. Yet the SDGs are so weak that they still accelerate global overshoot.

“Climate change”, which is merely one symptom of overshoot, appeared in 5.5 million articles in 2021. That’s about 10,000 times more than overshoot, the overarching is being mentioned. Climate change articles now even overshadow the number of articles mentioning economic growth or GDP (4.8 million in 2021).

Overshoot is a Ponzi scheme

It is hard to imagine a more obvious case of a pyramid scheme than overshoot. Humanity’s resource overuse is clearly robbing the future to pay for the present. It requires constant depletion of our underlying natural wealth to maintain the current income. Ultimately, if not rectified, this ends in ecologically bankrupting humanity.

Given the damage they cause, financial pyramid schemes are illegal in most countries. Yet, ecological ones are still oddly encouraged, tolerated, or ignored. Their potential damage, though is no less. Read more here.

Change has been slow

Experiencing the first oil crisis in 1973 as an 11 year old child, I experienced fun car-free Sundays. I was looking forward to a fossil fuel free future. I assumed though that this would take a long time, at least 5 years. Expecting 5 years for such a foundational transformation may have been childishly naïve. 

But producing barely any trend shift in over 50 years, with all the knowledge humanity had at its disposal for even longer is probably even more bizarre. Because 50 years after the first oil crisis, the fossil fuel free era seems still as distant as back then. The percentage of fossil fuel in humanity’s total energy mix remains about the same, and the total energy annual consumption has nearly doubled since.

As a result, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have vastly increased. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in 1973 was 330 ppm, only 50 ppm above the concentration before the industrial revolution. One ppm is one "part per million" or one molecule per one million molecules.  By now the CO2 concentration stands at 421 ppm, but including all other greenhouse gases, the atmosphere now contains 523 ppm CO2 equivalent. That's 70 ppms higher than the amount IPCC considered to give humanity a 66% chance not to eventually exceed 2C temperature increase... Note that the thermal impact of higher greenhouse gas concentrations comes with time delays for two reasons: thermal inertia but also that some of the warming effect gets dampened by current levels of air pollution (such as SOx) which many rightly want to eliminate due to their health hazards. 

The climate dilemma is one of the symptoms of persistent overshoot at planetary scale, with humanity's demand having exceeded what the biosphere can renew for over half a century. Despite tremendous technological advances since, including in the energy field, with higher efficiencies, cost-effective wind turbines and solar photovoltaics, the challenge to move out of fossil fuels has become tougher. 

Today a significantly larger global population is getting a much larger share of its inputs from fossil fuels rather than biological resources. It is not obvious how the fossil fuel portion can be replaced at that scale, and even less how this is possible without additional damage to the biosphere.

Complicated? Think of "imaginary cookies"

A few years back, I had the opportunity to present to 11-year-old students in Oakland, California, where I reside. The school arranged an NGO day and invited me to speak to a couple of classes. I was curious to see how these young students would respond to my message.

 

I began by describing myself as a "bookkeeper of nature," someone who meticulously tallies up resources like beans, milk, cotton, carbon sequestration, and all that nature provides. I explained that the organization I represented tracked the amount of nature available and how much of it we consumed

 

Then, I posed a question to the students: How would you measure nature? Nicola raised her hand and suggested "square miles." Precisely. This is how, over 30 years ago, Bill Rees and I began quantifying both the abundance of nature ("biocapacity") and human utilization of it ("ecological footprint"). Since not all surfaces are equally productivity, we measure biocapacity and footprints in adjusted hectares. We call them "global hectares", and they represent biologically active hectares with global average productivity. Using this metric, human demand can be directly compared with the available natural resources. These global hectares essentially serve as the currency of nature - or as a former Colombian minister once told me, it's the only currency grounded in reality.

Next, I asked the class why they thought it would be valuable to measure how much nature we have and how much we use. Nicola eagerly raised her hand again and replied, “by measuring ow much we have, we then know if we have enough.” She added, “if we use more than what we have, all there is left to eat is imaginary cookies.”

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Resources on Overshoot

Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William Behrens III, 1972, The Limits to Growth; a report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind. A Potomac Associates Book.

Mathis Wackernagel and Bert Beyers, 2019, Ecological Footprint: Managing Our Biocapacity Budget, New Society Publishers.

William Catton, 1980, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press.

Peter Victor, 2023, Escape from Overshoot: Economics for a Planet in Peril, New Society Publishers.

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