Earth Overshoot Day in 2015 occurred on August 13. This means that August 13 was the day when humanity’s annual demand for the resources that the Earth can provide (food products, resources such as cotton and wood, and carbon dioxide absorption) exceeded what the planet’s ecosystems can renew in a year. In other words, it takes 1.6 Earths to support humans’ demands. Recent estimates show that by sometime in the 2030’s, we will need 2 Earths to support us.
But the problem is, we only have one Earth.
Consumption Drives Climate Change
The overshoot is directly a result of our overconsumption of energy and materials.
We know that climate change is caused by an excess of carbon-based molecules in the atmosphere. These carbon molecules, primarily carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, trap radiant heat and prevent it from escaping the Earth’s atmosphere. This is what warms our planet to higher average temperatures each year.
Energy consumption creates an excess of carbon in the atmosphere through the extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth and through burning those fossil fuels to create electricity and to fuel our transportation.
Materials consumption increases the carbon in the atmosphere as well. This is because it requires energy to mine, extract, harvest, process, and transport raw materials, and then more energy to manufacture, package, and transport the products to stores/warehouses/distribution centers and then to homes and businesses for use. Then after use, further energy is required to dispose of the products and the packaging.
Growth Drives Consumption
In modern society, everyone strives for growth. Nations want to grow their economies year over year, to provide better jobs and income opportunities for their citizens, to increase their production, and to decrease their national debt. Individuals want to improve their quality of life, provide a better future for their children, perhaps take a nice vacation. However, this drive for growth also drives the overconsumption that is having harmful impacts on the planet. While there is nothing ethically wrong with striving for a better quality of life, we are at a critical point in history in which we need to look more closely at the effects that these aspirations are having on the planet and discover paths to get there that are sustainable.
Take the United States for example. A 1999 estimate showed that each US citizen consumes 25 pounds of raw materials each year. The same study showed that 16% of the world’s population—mostly in wealthy nations—is utilizing 80% of the Earth’s resources. If all nations start to consume at a rate similar to nations like the U.S., we will be consuming even more unsustainable levels of the Earth's resources.
Meanwhile, throughout the world, millions of people do not have enough to eat from one day to the next. As climate change progresses, many communities will find it more difficult to maintain their food supply, due to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events caused by our warming planet. And countries continue to grow their economies without limit and exacerbate climate change.
As Pope Francis poignantly expressed in the 2015 Encyclical, we break the commandment “Thou shall not kill” when “20% of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
“Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilization suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.”
How A Degrowth Economy Can Help
If we want to slow down climate change and global warming before the Earth forces us to slow down in a much more dramatic fashion, simply switching to renewable energy sources will not be enough. Already, we have seen huge improvements in efficiency and renewables. But the savings are being reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing our impact on the planet. Reinvestment in growth, as well as a predictable standard of constant growth, are concepts firmly entrenched in our minds and our culture.
We need to fundamentally change our expectations; to let go of the idea that capitalism and growth equal progress.
Degrowth is “a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.”
The unlimited growth of the world's economies is driving the destruction of the planet. We all must start to limit our growth and consumption, if we want to preserve the Earth for future generations of all species.
Many hold great hope that the COP21 conference in Paris this December will result in clearly defined, actionable, enforceable global regulations that will reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change. But admittedly, politicians and economists face certain constraints when designing sweeping global change. Creating sustainable development goals at the top level is one thing; filtering those initiatives down to nations, states/provinces, cities, and local governments is another. It will take time and huge amounts of money to accomplish these changes from a top-down perspective. The decisions made at COP21 will be critical to improving the condition of the planet, and we need the support of legislators and policy makers to enforce and roll out new regulations. But there is something else that can be done simultaneously.
We can jumpstart degrowth from the bottom up.
Degrowth: A Better Way of Living
In fact, it appears that the revolution has already begun.
Minimalism and reducing consumption are quickly becoming a global movement. We are hearing more about such creative and innovative initiatives as tiny houses, transition towns, the sharing economy, and collaborative consumption.
Amazing recent progress has been made in zero waste, mandatory composting, and institutions such as hospitals and colleges becoming self-sufficient as they grow all of their own organic produce.
What is becoming abundantly clear is that degrowth does not mean depriving ourselves. The truth is, we don’t need all of that stuff—or the packaging that comes with it. Are frequent trips to the shopping mall really bringing us more happiness? Or are they just increasing our debt, our guilt, and our need for ever more comprehensive storage solutions?
The Barneby family in San Francisco have significantly reduced their stuff and their consumption as they work toward their goal of a zero waste home. They say now they have far more time for what they really enjoy, such as spending time together, enjoying their children, and having fun experiences, because they spend far less time shopping, cleaning, and organizing.
We might be able to spend less time at work, as well. To reduce their energy use, companies might move to a four-day work week, or allow more employees to work from home. Individuals will have the freedom to choose to work part time rather than full time, since they won’t need to spend so much money “keeping up with the Joneses.” People will want to spend more time at home growing their own produce, repurposing old clothes and other used items, or cooking for the community with locally grown foods. We will find more joy in spending time in our own communities rather than using fossil fuels to propel us around the globe for vacation.
Deglobalization and localizing our ecomonies will be of primary importance in the new era of degrowth. Each region will strive to become as self-sufficient as possible, producing food and goods that will mainly be used in the local area, rather than being shipped overseas. Energy expenditures from packaging and transportation will be significantly reduced as we regionalize, hopefully slowing down global warming. On a slightly scarier note, but something that we have to consider: Localized economies will also build resilience into each regional area in case of upheaval in other locations due to climate change disasters or economic collapse, which scientists say will become more likely if the temperature rises more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
How Can the Average Person Contribute to Degrowth?
1. Set a goal for a 100% plant-based diet.
Much of our overconsumption is related to what we eat. It is well-documented that producing meat utilizes far more resources than we gain by eating it. Reducing the amount of meat in your diet is a very important first step to take. Moving toward an entirely plant-based diet is highly recommended.
"Each day, a person who eats a plant-based diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life."
Additionally, we should work toward growing our own food, when possible, or purchasing food only from local producers. This will reduce demand in the large grocery chains for food that has been shipped halfway around the globe. If you live in the city, you can join a local food co-op to support local growers, or join a sustainable urban garden initiative, where unused city plots or rooftops are turned into communal vegetable gardens. You can find some inspiring stories and great resources regarding urban gardening here, here, and here.
2. Strive for zero waste.
Composting and recycling are keys to reaching a future in which we don’t need to add anymore to landfills. This will reduce methane emissions and conserve more land for natural uses. But to reach zero waste, we need to shut down the demand for all of the items that end up being recycled or thrown in a landfill. Replace plastic shopping bags with reusable cloth bags; stop buying disposable water bottles and invest in a single reusable water bottle for each member of the family. Don’t buy cheap plastic toys; purchase natural wood toys that can be handed down through generations. Stay away from high-fashion items that will be out of style next season.
3. Reuse goods, share, and buy secondhand.
A whole new sub-economy is springing up in which goods are shared, repurposed, repaired, and used again. The Buy Nothing New movement is one example of a group of people dedicated to reaching zero waste, improving the quality of their lives, simplifying their homes, and reducing environmental impact. Find clothes at vintage stores, GoodWill, consignment shops, or in your own closet. Find housewares and furniture at garage sales and flea markets. Swap toys with friends every few weeks; you'll find that your kids will always have something different to play with.
Degrowth Offers a Different Future
Here is a beautifully optimistic look at the new way we could live in the degrowth society from Samuel Alexander:
“A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.
“We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.
“But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful.”