Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the day in the year in which we’ve used as many of the Earth’s resources as it will take natural processes one year to replenish. Given that it’s only August this is a shocking fact. But perhaps more disturbing is that Earth Overshoot Day creeps forward every year and strongly reminds us that what we do does have an impact on the natural world; there is no nature / culture divide; we are ecological beings not economic actors.
If it seems vague to say that natural resources are struggling to renew the Earth’s resources let me say it more clearly with another fact; we are now losing between 200 and 300 species every day. That’s not a typo, every DAY. They will never come back. We can no longer pretend that nature lives on one side of the fence and humanity on the other. We can no longer convince ourselves that what we do on this side has no impact on the other. And we can no longer pretend that the pursuit of economic prosperity at the cost of the Earth’s well-being is an acceptable way to live.
We each live within the boundaries of a story. A story we’ve been told (or in many cases sold) since we came into this world. It’s the story of separation. Separation from one another and separation from nature. It’s the story that tells us to grab as much as we can as quickly as we can and live out our remaining years in peace and comfort; sit back and watch the younger folks scramble for the available resources and ruminate on how things were better a generation ago.
But it’s a story that is not based on any ecological reality or constraints but on a self-imposed artificial scarcity which works well for elites and keeps the vast majority of people scrambling to make ends meet. The ecological truth is abundance – even with a human population bursting at the seams – but what we’ve come to think of as abundance has become perverted and fetishized into a quite bizarre human cultural narrative.
The game is up and the advance of Earth Overshoot Day shows it. We desperately need a new imaginary for how to move forward as a species. We need new stories, better stories, great stories. Our technological advancement demonstrates our immense intellect but also our intense imagination. If we can dream up and make commonplace some of the hallmarks of the modern world (like me typing this and making it available for a vast number of people to read) then surely we can reimagine our relationship to the natural world; surely we can imagine and implement a means of pushing Earth Overshoot Day further back in the calendar?
Fittingly, in the media today are reports that the latest set of high-level CO2 emission targets are largely being missed. Seriously, what is the point? Why set targets that when missed have few, if any, consequences? It’s lip-service to the reality of the environmental situation. But anyway, more scientific studies, more reports, more conferences, all emerge from the same paradigm that the environmental crisis has emerged from; an extreme and unquestioning faith in our ability to solve our greatest challenges through a techno-scientific framing. We give a sigh of relief when we believe we can engineer our way forward. I believe we can engineer almost anything, such is our competence and confidence about that. But faced with the prospect of social and cultural change we sigh with heavy hearts, desperate to cling onto the cultural narratives that we hold ourselves in.
It’s frightening to step into a new story. It’s frightening to think of ourselves as ecological beings in a world of things that are stronger, faster and more deadly than we are. But our animal bodies know the reality of that situation, it’s only our minds that are experiencing memory loss. Stepping into a new story is stepping into the unknown. There are no maps or guides or best practices. But unlike explorers of the past we are not ignorant about where we are or what the situation is. And that is one of the greatest ironies of the situation we find ourselves in. We have never had so much visibility on ourselves and on our impact on the Earth, yet we are struggling to redefine our stories.
The great thing about stories is that they are just that, stories. Humans have always told stories and perhaps one of the things we love most about them is that we can reimage new characters, new subplots, new adventures. Indeed, perhaps it is because stories are so malleable that we love them so much. We are not passive actors in some economic game over which we have no control. We are alive, intelligent, emotional, creative creatures. We are the main characters of this evolving story of humanity but we are also the authors, imbued with great power, potential and responsibility.
Earth Overshoot Day speaks to our power and influence, and also to our obligation to do what is right, not only for our own individual lives and prosperity, but for all beings and all creatures and all life. All life sits on the same side of the fence. If there’s another side it is the future and what it looks like is entirely up to us.
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