Today, 3 April, is the Overshoot Day 2022 for Sweden.
In a rich country like Sweden, we consume lots of resources. We use fossil fuels for transportation and steel and cement production. We cut down forests and pollute the air, waters and soils. Earth can take quite some abuse, but there are limits to what can be regenerated and absorbed. If we overload the ecosystem, it becomes weaker and the biocapacity goes down. We lose species and natural wealth. Earth becomes a poorer place to live. We wouldn’t want that, right?
The Ecological Footprint is one way of combining different kinds of loads into one metric, to better understand the overall picture. The ecological footprint was introduced in the 1990s by Rees & Wackernagel (see e.g. their excellent book Our Ecological Footprint). Everything is converted into equivalent land use, i.e. how much land is needed to cope with the load. It is a simplification, but I think it is a good one that helps us to understand the dimensions of the problem. The average footprint for people living in Sweden is today is 7 gha (global hectares) per person. For each of the Swedes, 70000m2 fertile land is needed.
How much is that? Is it too much? How can we understand the situation?
What are the facts and what are the value judgements?
If we zoom out to look at the global picture, we have approx 12 billion gha to share among 8 billion people, which makes up for 1.5 gha per person, if we were to split it equally. Here is the first value judgement: equal rights to the resources of the planet. What do you feel? Does other people have the same rights to the riches of the Earth? In Sweden we use 4x of the resources of what is sustainably possible to use on the planet. (The numbers are similar across the rich part of the world – 3 to 8x more) Do you think that Swedish people have more rights to resources than someone in India just because the Swedes are rich? Or less, since we in Sweden have already been overshooting for a few generations? Maybe this is the reason why we are “rich”?
Another value judgement is connected to the surface area of each country. Can we have rights to use other countries for our pollution and resource extraction?
Do we in Sweden have rights to more ecological footprint because Sweden is a large country with few people? And inversely, do people in a densely populated country like England or the Netherlands have less rights to the planet, since they have a small area per person in their country?
A third value judgement relates to the rights over time. Is it OK to use up resources now and live in exuberance, while future generations will have to make do with less? This one was cleverly avoided when the Bruntland commission described “sustainable development” in the 1980s: Meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As one SUV rider quipped: “I need a large car, but my kids don’t!”.
For each of these judgements, each of us could arrive at a different destination. The Global Footprint Network that produces the Earth Overshoot Day infographic in the top of the post has chosen for equal use of resources for everybody, and that we should not degrade the planet for the future.
I think that the most important is to think it through and to be aware of our choices. I think it is useful to be aware of the situation and to see that there are choices. We have agency.
Which political parties dare to talk about overshoot and their value judgements?
Looking forward, we have some different options from a global perspective. On the one extreme, we just continue as we have been doing the last 100 years, and expand resource use until Nature hits back. That is in figure below – we keep pushing until systems break so much that we are forced to reduce our consumption. We let Nature decide the pace and will end up in a much poorer world with lower biocapacity.
Another pathway is for us humans to reduce resouce consumption and pollution voluntarily, to below the biocapacity of the planet, so that Earth can recover.
Which pathway would you prefer?