Overshoot day 2014: Interview with Mathis Wackernagel

19.08.2014 - Olivier Turquet

This post is also available in: Italian

Overshoot day 2014: Interview with Mathis Wackernagel
(Image by Mathis Wackernagel)

Mathis Wackernagel is the founder and president of Global Footprint Network, which every year organizes the overshoot day which this year falls today, August 19th.

Mathis, can you explain this idea and its origin?

Earth Overshoot Daymarks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. We maintain this deficit by liquidating stocks of resources and accumulating waste, primarily carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The idea is a permutation on the “tax day” pushed by people who do not like to pay taxes… it marks by which day you start to earn money for yourself… Our friend Andrew Simms, then at the UK think tank new economics foundation originally suggested the idea to us.

When will it happen this year?

This year Earth Overshoot Day lands on Aug. 19. In less than eight months, humanity has used up nature’s entire budget for the year and gone into ecological overshoot.

What can we do as individuals and at a collective level?

Overshoot will end, whether we like it or not. The choice is between moving out by design or disaster.

If we opt for design, all of us, as individuals, cities, nations, or even humanity, can act. It means to develop and implement sustainable strategies to reverse ecological overshoot while also securing people’s wellbeing.  This is where the Ecological Footprint can be sued to support decision making and to anticipate to what extent our approaches might counteract the overshoot trends.

The design question is ultimately for humanity, how can we live well within one global hectare per person (to leave some space for other species and to accommodate for the possibly larger population in the future). So this becomes a budgeting game. Biggest intervention points for people are the way we eat (less animal products for instance, less food waste, less processed), where and how we are housed (compact, centrally located, energy efficient, with renewable energy support), our transportation options (small distances, walked or cycled, avoiding flights), and family size (one child families help reduce the population pressure, two child families maintain it, three child families add to it – leading to a 50 percent increase of population over 20-25 years which is about double to current world population growth rate – or even double the Indian population growth rate). Regarding their consumption, people can check out their consumption level at www.footprintcalculator.org

Nations have many choices too, since they direct a lot of financial budgets and make infrastructure decision. Plus the set legislations. For instance, the Philippines is on track to adopt the Ecological Footprint at the national level — the first country in Southeast Asia to do so — via its National Land Use Act. This policy, the first of its kind in the Philippines, is designed to protect areas from haphazard development and plan for the country’s use and management of its own physical resources. Legislators are seeking to integrate the Ecological Footprint into this national policy, placing resource limits at the center of decision-making.

How do you see the prospects of mankind on this planet?

It is possible for humanity to achieve sustainability on this planet. It will require thought, possibly sweat, and certainly difficult decisions. But changing the world can also be pretty exciting.

Humanity has a long history of innovation and ingenuity. Technology will play a major role in making society more sustainable. But it is unlikely to be the only solution. The current lifestyle of industrialized urbanites cannot be extended safely to everyone on Earth given our limited natural resources.  And even without extending it, our current situation is self-destructive. The Ecological Footprint is a tool that facilitates learning about ecological constraints and developing ways of living that can fit within the budget of nature.

Many cultures consider the human being the keeper of the Earth. Do you share this vision? Do you think this vision can help to avoid a disaster?

Through the industrial economy, humanity has become the dominant consumer in most of the Earth’s ecosystems.  As a result, the human “load” has grown to the point where total consumption already exceeds sustainable natural income.  I guess you are asking: “Do we have an inherent right to so much of nature’s productivity at the expense of the several million other species living on the planet?” We could even ask: “Does it even serve our self-interest?” Impacts of overshoot are VERY unevenly distributed, and it matters how we prepare ourselves. To throw up our hands claiming it is a global problem we cannot do anything about is really silly. It is like refusing to fix our own boat until all other people fix their boat first. Such a strategy is neither helpful nor logical.

Categories: Ecology and Environment, International
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