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Earth Overshoot Day: shifting the conversation from scarcity to abundance

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By Douglas Flynn

· 4 min read

Earth Overshoot Day has served an important purpose: a flashing dashboard light, tracking humanity’s insatiable, accelerating and self-destructive consumption of Earth’s resources.

But catastrophic warnings can lead to paralysis rather than progress. Apathy rather than empowerment. Collective mourning, rather than collective action. 

Earth Overshoot Day needs to be about so much more than that: a reminder not only of what we have lost and are losing - but what we stand to gain! 

That a devastating slide into the abyss of ecological collapse is not inevitable. That we have choices to make. That we, as individuals and as society, can be active agents and not passive victims.

We have collectively forgotten what abundance really means

Shifting baseline syndrome refers to a phenomenon where each new generation perceives the current state of the environment as normal, regardless of its degraded condition. Where we used to catch fish the size of doors, we now harvest those the size of doorstops. And we don’t notice the difference.

Known technically as ‘environmental generational amnesia’, our collective consciousness can no longer recall the propensity of this planet for abundance and renewal.

And that has an unexpected silver lining. It means we have underestimated the power of this planet to replenish itself and sustain us – if only we respect certain conditions.

Earth Overshoot Day can become more than the melancholy marking of the side of a retreating glacier. It can become an ice pick in the avalanche, the first foothold on the return to the summit.

We can bring abundance back 

There were times when passenger pigeons were so abundant that a single flock flying past would darken the skies for hours. Breeding colonies of fish and bird species can still be seen from space. To stand in a rainforest and look up is to witness a hundred-foot, gravity-defying column of the productive miracle that is photosynthesis. To leave a few square metres of garden untended is to marvel at the irrepressible, irresistible, seemingly inexplicable, ways that life re-emerges from every square inch of soil.

Shifting baselines have made it harder for us to see solutions. But they are still there if we look hard enough. From the past to the present, and from the macro to the micro, we have the evidence.

Take the global food system as just one example. The leading scientific and research institutes have shown us there are global pathways for food and resource security, even on a planet of 10 billion people. Pioneering countries such as Costa Rica have shown it is possible to reverse deforestation, halt biodiversity loss, restore ecosystem functioning and increase economic growth and agricultural productivity at the same time. Breakthrough technological advancements point to the possibility of food production – through technologies such as precision fermentation – with a land footprint of less than 1% of current approaches.

Imagination, then inspiration, then implementation

To halt the current ecological freefall, imagination and inspiration need to happen first: we must shake off our ecological amnesia, and our human-imposed constraints, and ‘remember’ the true potential of earth’s regenerative and nourishing power.

The next step is, of course, the implementation. As an antidote to Earth Overshoot crises, remember this: resource depletion is not inevitable - it is a product of mismanagement. For evidence, you need to look no further than multiple examples from around the world where effective fisheries management has increased levels of protection and increased total fish catch and resulting economic benefits.

And there is more good news: we have massive policy levers to pull. 2% of global GDP is currently spent annually on subsidies that directly reduce the ability of earth’s systems to regenerate, replenish and remain resilient. But less than 1% of GDP would be sufficient to close the global biodiversity financing gap – a useful proxy for the annual investment needed to maintain the integrity of earth’s ecosystems. 

So, let us not allow ourselves to waste a moment in mourning, to let ourselves slide ruefully into the ecological chasm. Let us look up towards the light, and use every weapon in our armoury to climb towards the abundant world we can yet be part of.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Douglas Flynn’s mission is to bring abundance back to Africa’s wild places. He is an expert in the fields of carbon finance, nature-related investments and African biodiversity conservation.

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