“The Earth is what we all have in common.” — Wendell Berry, American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer
When you walk along the beach or a stretch of grass, you see the indents your footprint has left behind. Everywhere we go and everything we do has an impact on people and planet, though our ecological footprint is often much larger than the size of our feet.
An ecological footprint measures the resources we use, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the amount of water for a shower. More often than not, it’s harder to see, such as the fossil fuels burned to transport food to your table. When you add up the resources each of us consumes both directly and indirectly, the collective impact is far greater than one may imagine. This means our demand on nature’s resources outweighs the supply of nature — and is therefore unsustainable.
A large component of our ecological footprint is our carbon footprint, which is the total amount of carbon dioxide we use. You may not think a 15-minute drive to school or single plate at mealtime has a big impact, but it all adds up! The average American drives 11,000 miles a year, which comes out to approximately 31,350 gallons of gasoline over a lifetime, while the average American household produces about 8 tons of carbon per year related to food alone. These contribute to an average individual footprint exceeding 20 tons of carbon, roughly equivalent to two dump trucks brimming with solid carbon.
Why does this matter? As carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, excess heat is trapped in a process known as the greenhouse effect. When the sun’s energy reaches the Earth’s atmosphere, some is reflected back to space, while the rest is absorbed and re-radiated by greenhouse gases, causing global temperatures to rise.
Many of the negative impacts of climate change stem from human activity – especially the burning of finite resources, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, and agriculture and land clearing – are increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases. This exacerbates the greenhouse effect, further escalating the climate crisis. Detrimental and irreversible climate change is occurring before our eyes. The past six years have been the hottest on record, which 2020 is expected to meet or surpass.
Albeit with tragic consequences for too many, this year has provided an unexpected lens to see firsthand how climate phenomena can change for the better very quickly, as the earth responded to the rapid decrease of fossil fuels in our atmosphere due to pandemic shutdowns. Every year, the Global Footprint Network calculates Earth Overshoot Day, the specific date when demand for Earth’s limited resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In other words, the closer the day is to the end of the year, the better! In 1970 the date was Dec 29, almost sustainable. In 2019, the date was July 29. In just 50 years, the date moved 5 months earlier, reflective of wholly unsustainable consumption patterns. Due to the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and the dramatic measures taken to slow the spread, such as sheltering in place, factory shutdowns and cuts in global transportation, emissions plummeted for a short while and 2020’s Earth Overshoot Day was thus estimated to land on August 22, three weeks later than last year — meaning slightly more in line with Earth’s regenerative capacity.
“This year more than ever, Earth Overshoot Day provides an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the future we want,” said Laurel Hanscom, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network. “Efforts to respond to COVID-19 have demonstrated that shifting ecological resource consumption trends in a short time frame is possible. As we emerge out of the public health crisis and focus on rebuilding our economies and our lives, strategies informed by biological resource security and 1-planet prosperity are far more likely to bring about the positive outcomes that decision makers seek.”
While this news is a small victory, it is but short lived. We must remember to actively strive to continue a positive trajectory that does not occur at the expense of anyone, even after we recover from the pandemic. It’s not enough to return to a ‘normal’ that did not serve people or planet well. We can and must do better to create a new operating system, where sustainable consumption, responsible usage and combating climate change are at the forefront of popular and industrial actions, as well as policy.
Individuals have more power than you think. Recognize the power of our human handprint, which is used as a visual for the positive impact an individual can have upon the environment. Let’s make our mark for the better! By standing up, speaking out and living a values-aligned life, every one of us can be a leader for the world we wish to create.
Changes in daily habits and consumption patterns may not seem significant in a world of nearly 8 billion people, but every decision contributes to the well-being of humans, other species and the Earth. What would the world look like if each person consumed less and demanded more ethical production? Instead of supporting companies with practices that harm the planet, consider those like today’s partner, Everyone, that work hard to ensure a smaller footprint by using certified organic ingredients with traceable sourcing and fair trade labor in a zero waste factory, among other measurable environmentally and socially-conscious actions. All of these elements when scaled add up to real positive impact.
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“The Novel Coronavirus Pandemic has caused humanity’s ecological footprint to contract. However, true sustainability that allows all to thrive on Earth can only be achieved by design, not disaster.” — Global Footprint Network
Earth Overshoot Day landed on August 22, 2020, three weeks later than in 2019. The pandemic has upended human interactions and impact on ecosystems worldwide. Rapid systemic change through mass behavior shifts is possible, but public and political will are required.
To account for the effects of this year’s Coronavirus pandemic, Global Footprint Network combined data and reasonable assumptions to form an assessment. Changes in carbon emissions (footprint reduced 14.5% from 2019), forest harvest (product footprint reduced 8.4% from 2019), food demand, and other factors around biocapacity and consumption beginning on January 1, 2020 were evaluated to place Earth Overshoot Day 2020 on August 22. This report sheds fascinating light.
As we are forced to rethink how we live in the world, let’s reflect on how to step away from harmful habits and adopt conscious choices — for today, tomorrow and the more resilient future we seek to co-create.
Craft a pledge to commit to making this change.
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Individual actions impact ecological footprints, but that is only one part of the issue. Consider this: 25% of the world’s population consumes 75% of global resources. Such out-of-balance consumption cannot be reversed by personal action alone; leaders need to introduce, implement and enforce policies focused on equity and sustainability. Drivers of governments, businesses and institutions at every level have the power to create and mandate policies for a sustainable future. Given this, what do you think our world leaders should be doing to act on climate?
First, watch this video from youth environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez to hold leaders accountable.
Now, it’s time to be creative. Produce an informative and mobilizing call to action to demand that leaders enact policy to act on climate. Incorporate facts, bold visuals, personal story and specific asks. Use whatever format and style you feel will be most impactful to convey your points and passion.
100 bonus points are yours if you get a response! Push the issue and make leaders pay attention where it matters. Simply email firstname.lastname@example.org by October 15th with screenshots of the exchange.
Upload a link to your video in a PDF document. Include a screenshot of your social media post. Please include your name (or team name), username, email address, and school.
Up to 10 Greener and 10 Greenest outstanding submissions will be selected as winners.
Each winner will receive: