Today, May 15, is Overshoot Day for Italy, that means the day of the year in which humanity, if it were to consume like Italy, would have used up all the natural resources that the Earth can regenerate and would enter into an “ecological deficit”. This data gives us the measure of how much we have to reduce our environmental impact, to find balance once again, with our territory and with the ecosystems, as highlighted by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in their last report.
Distracted by the terrible news of the war in Ukraine, in a media system in which there is only room for “one piece of news at a time”, the publication of the new report “Mitigation of Climate Change”, went virtually unnoticed. This report, presented last month, on April 4 by the IPCC, the world’s most authoritative body on the climate crisis, established by the UN in 1988, is a very important document that has the ability to bring attention to the terrible climate situation and the equally terrible inaction of governments. “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. They are lying. It’s time to stop burning our planet,” tweeted António Guterres, UN Secretary General.
But probably, like the countless documents on climate launched in the last three decades, it will be of little or no importance, because it remains imprisoned in the logic of the system that is leading us to the abyss: it focuses only on climate change, leaving out the other aspects of the crisis. Climate relies heavily on CO2 capture and storage technologies and absolutely does not address the root problems – even if it contains (timid) references to degrowth (as does the second working group’s report).
The systemic crisis
It is now increasingly clear to more and more people that the climate crisis denounced by the IPCC, as well as the terrible war in Ukraine itself, are only the most evident and catastrophic manifestations of our “intrinsically” destructive and biocidal social, cultural and economic system: a system sick with greed, obsessed with the growth of economic values and which pushes towards permanent competition for the grabbing of resources and markets, causing, in addition to wars, global warming, the destruction of biodiversity, the poisoning of the seas, air and earth, zoonotic pandemics, etc.
But if global warming is only part of the systemic problem we find ourselves in, then its contrast, through the fight against CO2 emissions, is necessary but not sufficient action to face the global crisis. Indeed, like all partial views of a problem, it can be counterproductive to the extent that it can block our intervention on the part of the problem that we do not see, effectively preventing change.
Sometimes the partial solutions proposed are even deleterious. One of these is, for example, CCS (Carbon capture and storage), i.e. the capture and storage of carbon which is often invoked as a semi-miraculous technological solution capable of making the gasses previously introduced into the atmosphere, disappear, as with a sleight of hand. released into the atmosphere, storing them in the bowels of the earth. But in reality, it is a false solution, counterproductive, and also dangerous: counterproductive because it lulls us into the illusion of being able to safely continue to emit, so then – we think – we will clean the atmosphere of emissions; dangerous because it is an invasive technology that could even create new environmental risks.
As partisans of degrowth, we, therefore, want to underline that, in order to resolve the ecological crisis and ensure to all beings (human and non, present and future) “a just life within the biophysical limits of the planet”, in addition to zeroing CO2 emissions (and all greenhouse gases), it is necessary to reduce the overall “weight” of our societies and therefore the over-exploitation of nature (in English “overshoot”) to return to balance with the biophysical systems, which allow and sustain life on earth.
This is why Overshoot Day must be an important wake-up call for all of us which, in addition to giving us a very intuitive and concrete perception of human pressure on earth, also allows us to obtain the exact measure of how much we should reduce the weight of our economies. The date on which each year falls is indicated by the Global Footprint Network, the international research center that calculates the ecological footprint of humanity and the ability of the Earth, both globally and individual nations, to regenerate the resources consumed each year; also in terms of absorption capacity of the emissions released into the atmosphere.
We add that Overshoot Day continues to anticipate itself, year after year, with rare exceptions such as 2020 due to Covid-19. In fact, in 2021 the Earth Overshoot Day was on July 29, in 2011 on August 3, in 2001 on September 21, and so on. But, as mentioned, this data is very different between the different countries.
To better understand all of this, let’s see some data. The earth – say the scientists – is endowed with a certain biocapacity, that is the ability to sustain life and this biocapacity is somehow measurable in average global hectares (gha) 1. Now, the problem is that humanity has a footprint of 2.7 gha per capita while the biocapacity of our planet is only 1.6 gha. This means that today humanity is using nature 1.7 times faster than our planet’s biocapacity would allow it, which is equivalent to using the resources of 1.7 Earths (column D). In other words, we are living as if we have 1.7 lands at our disposal! If we then reverse the equation, we can derive the fact that humanity needs a 41% reduction in its impact to return to equilibrium with the Earth.
If we take into consideration only the Italians, rather than the whole of humanity, we can say that they have an ecological footprint of 4.5 gha (per capita): this means that, if all humanity consumed like the Italians, we would have need 2.8 lands (column D). But since we do not have them, it is urgent and vital to return to the limits of the planet by reducing our footprint by 64% (column F). If we then consider that the Italian territory is highly populated and has a low biocapacity (of only 0.9 gha), we arrive at the astonishing figure that we Italians would need as many as 5 Italies to live as we do today (column E) and that, if we wanted to stay within the biocapacity limits of the only Italy we have, we should reduce our impact by 80% (column G).
Taking the average between these two values, therefore, we can calculate that as Italians we should reduce our ecological footprint by 72%. For comparison, the inhabitants of the USA consume 8.1 gha but live in a much larger territory and with a high biocapacity (4.5 gha). Totally off-scale is the case of Quatar, whose inhabitants would need 15 states like theirs to afford the highly impactful lifestyle they lead.
In short, the reality principle requires us to take collective awareness of the situation we have just tried to describe as soon as possible. To move in this direction, already in October 2021 a document with a very explicit title was published on the website of the Movimento per la Decrescita Felice: “How much degrowth?”. In this document, in addition to the data of the Overshoot Day, those of the study “A Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries” were also analyzed, which identified 7 useful indicators to measure a “safe and fair” development space, quantified the resources used by each country and compared them with the seven most important planetary limits. From this analysis, it emerged that Italy exceeds no less than 5 biophysical limits out of 7 and therefore should reduce its impact by 78%, in order to be within its limits – a figure therefore very much in line with that of Overshoot Day.
The differentiated reduction
To respond to this kind of problem we must consider that the fact that nations like Italy have to reduce their biophysical impact by a measure between ⅔ and ¾ of the current levels does not absolutely mean that this reduction should concern all people in the same way, because not all consume and pollute in the same way. In fact, since emissions and environmental impact are extremely correlated with income, the reduction must also be differentiated between the different social classes.
The reduction of energy and resources must also be very differentiated between the various economic and productive sectors, with a twofold objective: on the one hand, to protect and strengthen those sectors that aim at human well-being and ecological regeneration; on the other hand, to reduce ecologically destructive and socially less useful production. Therefore, the production sectors that contribute to well-being and sustainability (such as caring for people and the environment, shared and non-fossil mobility, agroecology, etc.) will be able and will have to, grow, albeit in an ecologically sustainable way, while sectors that pose an ecological and/or social threat, will have to be drastically reduced.
The question of well-being
Looking at this situation from a social point of view seems very worrying and leads us to ask ourselves this question: how can we ever make such a drastic reduction in consumption in an already degraded social context like the Italian one, where more than two million families and over 5.6 million individuals live in a condition of absolute poverty? Do we not risk a “social massacre”?
In our opinion, contrary to what is often read, confusing it with the recession, a planned and democratic decrease in consumption will not only not decrease social well-being, but could also increase it.
In fact, as we have just seen, the decrease in consumption and the environmental impact must primarily concern the wealthier classes which are the most impacting and polluting, while the freed resources must serve to regenerate social life in a qualitative sense and to reorganize services aimed at building a coexistence, that is not only sustainable but also dignified for all. This is why, if well designed and executed, far from leading to a worsening of people’s lives, degrowth can, on the contrary, determine an increase in social well-being, guaranteeing everyone access to the resources (necessary for the satisfaction of needs) socially and ecologically fair, directing the whole economy towards caring for people, communities and nature and cutting out excess economic activities and unnecessary and harmful ones. This is possible by taking care of the center itself and the focus of the economy and not just a specific sector of it, unlike what the current growth economy does which, instead of satisfying needs, aims to perpetuate and amplify them to allow growth of GDP (only to reserve a residual part of the resources produced to “cure” the wounds that the system, by its nature, produces).
To face such a challenge, nothing less than a truly radical plan is needed, that is, capable of identifying and cutting the root of the problems through a profound transformation of the principles of the current cultural, political and economic paradigm that are leading us to disaster and a replacement of the current social pact (based on paid work) with a new “community” social pact.
To this end, our group of activists, members of the main Italian associations who deal with degrowth, has prepared the document “Emergency Exit”, which puts forward a series of political proposals, around three key objectives of the decrease:
– reduce the environmental impact of human activities to return to balance with nature;
– improve the well-being of all beings, transforming and relocating the economic “structure” of society;
– modify the “superstructure” of society, in a friendly and participatory sense.
Remember, Overshoot Day is extremely important!
We believe that it can facilitate that awakening and that personal and collective awareness alone can pave the way for the desired and necessary change.
The authors, Mario Sassi and Maria Elena Bertoli, are members of the Italian editorial staff of the independent media agency Pressenza.
The article in Italian has been released under Creative Commons 4.0 license and it can be found here: https://www.pressenza.com/it/2022/05/cosa-ci-dice-lovershoot-day/.
Translation by The Human Exploring Society released under Creative Commons 4.0 license.
Cover photo remixed by Video by GamOl from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/video/blazing-fire-2715412/