Author Archives: Richard Slaughter

Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

The costs are evident in a number of ways that include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough, what the GFN calls Earth Overshoot Day fell last year in early October – which means that our demands on an increasingly constrained world have grown much more rapidly, perhaps, then even the environmentally aware among us may have suspected. Even more interesting is that these challenging facts achieved virtually zero exposure in terms of conventional column inches or airtime. Humanity carried on oblivious to the implications of its spiraling demands. The fact that these are undermining its present and future is evidently a truth that cannot be spoken. It therefore continues to be avoided and overlooked.

The GFN calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the following way. It:

calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in 2015: (Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day).

No doubt many people would be willing to contest the methodology and its conclusions – and so they should. After all the implications are profound. But the sad fact is that the conversation is simply not taking place out in the open where it can gain traction and inform any meaningful public discourse. There’s a precedent for this elision of uncomfortable reality that refers us all the way back to 1972 and the publication of the first Limits to Growth (LTG) study. As Karen Higgs (Collision Course, 2014) and others have pointed out, it has become increasingly clear that the conclusions of the LTG constituted a rare and valuable gift to humanity that humanity was unprepared or unwilling to receive. The study and its authors were subjected to severe abuse because they challenged the primacy of economic growth – one of the fundamental assumptions of the social and economic order. Now, however, the results of failing to heed and understand the LTG over several decades means that we are currently facing extreme versions of the problems that had earlier been foreseen.

The GFN can, therefore, in some ways be regarded as a successor to the LTG team. But the methodology has changed and, I would argue, improved. Looked at as a date that moves forward each year ‘overshoot day’ provides another clear signal about what is happening. Moreover, the GFN team draws a surprisingly positive implication in its press release. It suggested that: ‘the global agreement to phase out fossil fuels that is being discussed around the world ahead of the Climate Summit in Paris would significantly help curb the Ecological Footprint’s consistent growth and eventually shrink the Footprint.’ Similarly:

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations. Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

The press statement goes on to assert that ‘this is not impossible.’ Yet these hopeful suggestions adhere to a highly improbable trajectory. Given the current state of social upheaval and geopolitical conflict in the world – to say nothing of dissonant values and uneven development – the chances of contending nations and over-powerful corporations agreeing to rein in humanity’s demands on the Earth appear negligible.

The truth that seldom gets reported anywhere in mainstream media is that the human enterprise is running a long way beyond any reasonable prospect of moderation or control. It follows that the forces most likely to engender changes of course are those that are emerging from the global system itself. That is to say, the planet is adjusting to our collective impacts with glacial but unstoppable momentum. As a result we are, as James Lovelock puts it, in for a very ‘rough ride into the future.’ It’s hardly surprising that currently affluent populations would rather avert their gaze than admit to themselves that the world is running out of options.

Review of Higgs, K. Collision Course: http://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/Collision_Course_Review_Final_070415.pdf

About Earth Overshoot Day: http://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/

Global Footprint Network: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/at_a_glance/

Kerryn Higgs and Collision Course

At the end of May I gave the opening address to the annual conference of the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) in Melbourne. In the audience was a local councillor from Redlands, Brisbane, by the name of Paul Bishop. The title of my address was Responding to the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (taken from the title of my 2010 book). When I met Paul afterwards I discovered why he’d seemed rather animated during the address. One of the sources I used to illustrate my theme was a book by Kerryn Higgs called Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. It turns out that Paul had just bought the book and was very interested in reading it. He’d heard the author on Radio National and had, in fact, already made contact. Which is how I found out that she was due to visit Brisbane in the near future.

Laurie and I caught up with Kerryn at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) during the afternoon of her visit and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. We were fascinated to learn that Kerryn had spent fully eight years researching and writing the book. The spark for her was the same as it was for myself. That is, she read the original Limits to Growth (LtG) book back in 1972 and was subsequently perplexed and concerned at the way that powerful groups in the USA, Europe and Australia worked hard – and successfully – to marginalise it. Quite obviously the notion that ‘growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet’ was one that had to be put down at all costs. Unfortunately for the rest of us this misguided and ill-conceived campaign succeeded. The whole LtG story and the vital messages it had for humanity were brushed aside and forgotten by most people.

Kerryn, however, was one of the people who refused to forget. In fact, as researchers began to compare some of the LtG projections with the way that the world actually tracked over subsequent years (in relation to energy, raw materials, food production, economic activity, ‘sinks’ for waste and so on), it became increasingly clear that the early work had been surprisingly accurate. As Kerryn points out in the book, the collective refusal to contemplate the issues raised over 40 years ago meant that we were now dealing with extreme versions of the problems and dilemmas that could then be seen on the horizon. She began to get angry but instead of turning that anger inward, as so many appear to do – and then becoming depressed – she decided that she had to act. She registered for a PhD at the University of Tasmania and started those years of painstaking research.

To my mind this suggests a rare quality of moral courage and determination. It’s one that’s greatly lacking in the post-modern world when few peoples’ thoughts or concerns ever seem to involve considering the roots of our contemporary malaise in an honest and sustained way. The research finished, however, Kerryn still had to face the rejection of a major London publisher that kept her manuscript for months and eventually claimed that appropriate reviewers could not be found! Following the disappointment she researched publishers that dealt with broad environmental and cultural issues and attracted the interest of MIT. This proved a very suitable match since the original research for the LtG project was carried out there. It took two years further work to transform the PhD into the book that we now have.

When we reached Avid Reader – the bookshop due to host Kerryn that evening – she’d expected only half-a-dozen people. Instead, the floor of the shop was cleared and packed full of chairs for nearly 60. We went for a quick drink at the pub over the road and then left her to gather her thoughts. Paul Bishop turned up at the conversation with a camera and ABC Radio National producer, Paul Barclay from Big Ideas, had arranged a sound engineer. A link to the audio and video will be provided once it goes to air on ABC radio.

Meanwhile you can read my review of Collision Course in the Reviews By section of this site.