Yesterday was Earth Overshoot Day – the day that marks the moment when humans of Earth have consumed more natural resources than the planet can renew throughout the whole of the year, representing our ecological debt. A shocking thought:
From January 1 to August 2, the earth’s 7.5 billion people will have used as much of Earth’s biological resources—or biocapacity—as the planet can regenerate in a year. During the remaining five months of 2017, our human consumption will be drawing down Earth’s reserves of fresh water, fertile soils, forests, and fisheries, and depleting its ability to regenerate these resources as well as sequester excess carbon released into the atmosphere. (source)
In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day landed on August 8th, the year before it was August 13th and if we go back in time to the year 2,000, it was pinpointed in October. There’s a trend emerging here.
But let’s back it up for a second.
Just last month two scientists released research detailing the most effective personal choices to reduce your contribution to climate change. All this time – the media marvelled – Governments and schools have been focusing on the wrong things. All we need to do is stop making babies and start walking everywhere and we’re golden, right?
But left out of this neoliberal crusade that places the weight on individual choices was mass consumerism, the very life blood of our current economic system. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock all your life, you know the current modus operandi on this planet involves infinite growth. Progress is measured in monetary terms, with an emphasis on endless increases in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with little to no consideration of the real-life conditions of people and the environment they depend on. This – the economists preach – is how Capitalism will lift the world out of poverty and offer salvation to all those currently scraping the bottom of the barrel.
What our consumerist model of life promotes is infinite growth on a finite planet (finite in the terms of earth Overshoot Day – yes depleted resources regenerate, but the earth needs a certain amount of time to regenerate after they have been extracted).
And so we arrive where we are – on August 2nd, Earth Overshoot Day 2017.
I spend a large amount of time on Reddit. Between /r/BeAmazed and /r/WoahDude many hours are consumed. But it was a mind blowing comment of a different nature that I read today that lay a finger directly on the pulse of what was missing from that groundbreaking research mentioned above. Reddit user/pk666 named the elephant taking up space in our Western living rooms, closets and storage units:
The elephant in the room is consumption. A family with 6 kids can use less resources than a 1 child family. We have all just be brainwashed into not questioning why ‘shopping’ has become the national pastime. Why we throw so much away, including food and appliances which once used to last decades. Why we don’t fix anything anymore- we just toss and buy anew. Why grandparents used to darn and sew instead of buying. Why t-shirts last for 4 wears, instead of for 4 or 14 years. Why we are conditioned to think that buying stuff is creating and creative (hint – it’s not). Why we have no idea of exactly where our furniture or food comes from anymore.
We know consumerism is damaging the environment. The amount of resources that go into extracting and processing the raw materials to make the things, ship the things and then deal with the things we consume at the end of their lifecycle is enormous. All these things come in packaging which take further resources to deal with. And to add insult to injury, our stuff isn’t even built to last anymore while companies are making it as difficult as possible to fix our things that break.
Our paradise, the one where we can buy anything we want, when we want, where we want – and indeed are encouraged to – comes with a price we don’t see because it doesn’t grab us by the wallet. The price we pay comes in incremental effects: in the destruction of our oxygen generating forests, our life-giving oceans and the people that are exploited to make this stuff – and then sort through it when we’re done with it.
There’s an elephant in the mall but we keep shopping anyway.
The current move towards minimalism in the West offers a glimmer of hope that we may be slowly waking up to the fact that purchasing a sickening amount of things we don’t really need doesn’t even make us happy. There is a growing Library of Things movement encouraging communities to share things rather than purchase them individually. And the countries that impose legislation to ban single-use plastics and encourage the repair of broken goods have set a gold standard that the rest of us need to push for in our own countries.
The truth of it is that it’s all too easy to be casually complicit in the awful fate we confine the next generation to. So easy that we do not see our everyday actions within the confines of the system as part of the problem. You and I will not experience the end of oil, coal, copper, etc. Perhaps it will just slowly taper off until it is too expensive to extract – but we will not witness it. We will be long gone and only our embarrassing legacy will live on: that we reverse-terraformed the planet; that so worthy of greatness, we chose to be less. Regardless of my actions I am as complicit as all of us, for our fate is shared – we fail and succeed together.
It is time to talk about the Elephant. To acknowledge that maybe – just maybe – the permission to purchase more and more cheaply made things is not a liberty, but an insult to the planet and the life it sustains. And if letting go of the infinite growth model also means re-designing our economic system – let’s just do it.
A first step would be to determine just how environmentally devastating that Elephant really is and begin research on the environmental impact of the products we are consuming. To date, there hasn’t been a whole lot of work done to determine, for instance, what the environmental footprint is of consuming a drill, a hammer or a table saw. At the 2nd Annual Lending Library Symposium, the Edinburgh Tool Library gave a great presentation on the need to develop a comprehensive system to measure such things. We need some solid data to put mass consumerism on the environmental map. We’re working on it.
Sharing is not some planetary panacea – our alternative libraries for tools and things do not represent the end-goal of some glorious pathway to utopia. But perhaps they are a step. We should be well tired of standing still and simply start walking. We are converting precious resources of this planet into meaningless trinkets, status symbols and things that will become obsolete in mere years. It is high time we became a multi-generational species planning 100 years in advance of us. We have the genius in abundance, now let’s make sure we have the habitat most suitable to its full expression.
This blog is a collaboration piece by two members of our team:
Lawrence is the President of the Institute for a Resource-Based Economy, and co-founder of the Toronto Tool Library and The Sharing Depot. Lawrence is an energetic speaker, delivering talks on 3D printing, education and the sharing economy. Growing up in Zimbabwe, he has lived in Botswana, Canada, South Africa and Argentina. His passion lies in exploring human relationships and our shared experience, and finding the connections between us.
Social Media Manager and Content Creator, @itsahashtaglife has been perfecting the art of online storytelling as a method to amplify the important messages of non-profits and charities in Toronto. She takes the tools and techniques of traditional digital media marketing and applies them to organizations working hard to shift our world into a new story – one that is more sustainable and supportive of people and the planet.