Earth Overshoot

SUBHEAD: The case for a sustainable economy. That means one without growth.
Image above: Detail of cover of 'Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update". From (
By Joshua Nelson on 21 August in Green Growth Cascadia - (
There are some dates in history that are incredible significant. September 11th, 2001 is one that comes to mind, as well as December 16th, 1945, end of the Second World War, and 1928 with the discovery of Penicillin. Not too many would recognize an even more important date: December 17, 1987, the first time we went into ecological overshoot. Every year since then we have pushed the human enterprise past the sustainable limits of our planet.

Today will live on in history as this Earth Overshoot Day 2010: when a year’s worth of renewable resources has been consumed and we start using next year’s supply. It’s only 8 months into the year and we’re already tapped out!

Throughout most of human history we have lived off Earth’s natural interest, taking resources at a rate that can be regenerated and depositing waste at a rate that can be absorbed. As the world economy has grown we have pushed closer and closer to the ecological limits of our finite planet. We are using 150 percent of the Earth’s capacity, running on a very limited supply of natural credit. Today we start eating into the reserves needed to renew our natural accounts for next year – each year we grow, yet each year our resources dwindle even faster than before.

What does this mean about our society as we hope to avert runaway climate change and cope with the coming shocks of peak oil? We must recognize the conflicts in our system that will make any hope of a sustainable society impossible, namely: continued economic growth.

Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron

Modern economic thought considers the Earth in the equation, yet does so in a very peculiar way. Today’s economists view the Earth as a repository of resources, separate from the economy itself. These trusted advisers tell us we can continue to grow the size of the economy without worry about the finite planet, because it is separate from the equation. Economists tell us that growing the economy can solve everything: poverty, hunger, and unemployment – even climate change. And their opinion is not entirely unfounded; it is simply in need of some revisiting.

The economy is a machine driven by and for us sitting on the surface of the Earth, not in space or in some ethereal realm. The Earth provides all the resources and takes all the waste. Therefore, it is preposterous to assume the economy can be larger than the Earth can support. The economy is a subsystem of the planet, not the other way around. When we talk about sustainability we cannot ignore the size of the economy.

Once upon a time our economy was small compared to the Earth. Growth meant more than just increased material wealth. Growth improved our standard of living by giving more people access to better food, housing, health care, education and leisure time. However, at a certain point more growth does little to improve well-being and happiness. In fact, economic growth might even be linked to a decrease in happiness – we’re working longer than ever, producing more and more, yet gaining less and less. Worse yet, as we produce and consume more each year we eat more and more into our supporting system: Earth. And there’s only one Earth.

Today’s economy is now very large compared to the Earth. We have started pushing up against the physical limits of the planet: peak oil, peak water, peak food – peak everything. Climate destabilization is on the horizon and could easily be pushed into overdrive if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases. Poverty, hunger, inequality and environmental degradation have not seen improvement despite all our growth.

We haven’t been anywhere near sustainable in quite some time. We’re in constant overshoot: environmentally, socially, politically – overstretched and stretching for more. Overall, it would appear that our 150-year experiment with rapid growth has shown poor results. What about the alternative? Can we have prosperity without growth?

Prosperity Without Growth

An economy focused on better, not bigger – qualitative growth instead of quantitative growth – is the sustainable future we must envision. Ecological economists classify this type of economy as a “steady state economy,” where production, consumption and population remain stable, at or below the limits of our finite planet.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a steady state economy would be stagnant – far from it. Just as a forest does not need to get exponentially bigger, our economy can function within the limits of our ecosystem. The forest is alive, always changing, always developing – but it’s overall dimensions do not change. It is simply recognizing when enough is enough and staying within those limits.

It is not a new concept. John Maynard Keynes, the economist that shaped most of our economic theory and policy today, as well John Stuart Mill, another founding economist, both recognized that a time would come when we would no longer be able to grow. They saw the growth economy as a means to an end, not the end itself and recognized that we would at some point be able to put growth behind us to focus on something better – developing our society. Tim Jackson has published some great work more recently and there is a plethora of great publications on the steady state economy by Herman Daly.

A Steady State Economy

Questioning growth may seem way out of the mainstream, if not also politically unwise, but it is the only way we can preserve a stable, secure human society into the next century. As odd as it might be to question growth, stranger still is the complete acceptance of it in defiance of the natural systems we rely on.

A steady state economy allows us to maintain our society and ecosystem for future generations, find a balance and focus on developing things like social justice, furthering free pursuit of knowledge and eliminating poverty and hunger. These higher paths that we all want – happiness, prosperity and increasing well being – do not require the size of the economy to increase. The alternative, continued addiction to growth will result in less biodiversity, increased resource scarcity and the worst-case scenarios of climate change.

We can no longer have anti-holidays like Earth Overshoot Day. I look forward to the sustainable society we create where we celebrate Earth Undershoot Day – when we end the year with excess resources. Learn more about Earth Overshoot Day and calculate your ecological footprint at the Global Footprint Network. Visit the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) for more information about the Steady State Economy.


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