August 1 was Earth Overshoot Day, the date when we have taken more from nature than it can renew in an entire year. Unsustainable extraction is occurring on a planetary scale: we are using natural resources 1.7 times faster in 2018 than the Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate this year. Critically, this year is the earliest date that we have gone into ecological deficit, the only deficit that truly matters.
Earth Overshoot Day is a clear and growing signal that our economies are, in the words of the Global Footprint Network, operating a giant planetary Ponzi scheme: borrowing far more from the Earth’s ecosystems than they can sustain. But we are already having to pay the price. From deadly heat waves to mass extinctions, soil erosion to dwindling water supplies, we are entering a new era of accelerating environmental collapse.
And on current trends, this is only set to worsen. Critically, those most likely to bear the violence of climate and other environmental change will be those with least past responsibility for our current situation.
The continued reliance on carbon to power our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the ambition agreed at the Paris climate summit, increasing the chance of severe climate disruption and the resulting social stress. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land and, at current rates, global top soil degradation means that there may only be 60 global harvests left. The collapse of ecosystems means we are in the age of the sixth mass extinction – the last being the dinosaurs – with nearly two-thirds of all vertebral life having died since the 1970s.
Taken together, human action is rapidly eroding the planet’s ability to provide the resources needed to sustain and reproduce human and non-human life. We have pushed environmental systems into “unsafe” operating spaces, threatening the conditions upon which life can occur and societies flourish. This has led scientists to suggest we live in a new age, the Anthropocence, in which (some) humans are the decisive, destructive influence on the natural world. Crucially, this is the overwhelming result of the behaviour of wealthy citizens, both past and present, and extractive models of development.
Mounting planetary crisis demands a systemic response, a reimagining of our economic and political institutions. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, something that our politicians are failing to grasp. The scale and pace of environmental disruption brought about by human activity requires two concurrent responses.
The first is nothing less than a global socioeconomic transformation that brings the impact of human activity to within safe limits over the lifetime of the millennial generation at the latest. This is not guaranteed. A neoliberal Anthropocene could win out, hierarchical and undemocratic, imposing unevenly shared costs, operating beyond safe planetary boundaries, and looking to the anti-political technological ‘moonshots’ of Silicon Valley for salvation.
Instead, we require a politics committed to democratic negotiation of environmental challenges, capable of collective restraint where necessary, while mobilising for shared abundance where possible. It will need to be attentive to global and intergenerational equity, capable of remaking economic institutions at scale, and able to rethink models of production and consumption, ownership, governance and investment. These ideas already exist – from using quantitative easing to buy out the global fossil fuel industry to localised democratic control of food and water supplies. What is needed is the boldness and urgency required to mobilise them. What may have seemed radical in the past becomes fully proportionate in the face of global environmental collapse.
The second is a concerted effort to ensure resilience to environmental shocks within and between nations as the impacts of environmental change begin to mount. This includes preparing our physical infrastructure, but also building the social and political networks within and across borders to drive systemic action on climate change. Natural system breakdown is already feeding into societies and economies around the world, from collapsing food security to the growing movement of people displaced by climate change. Risk in this new world is non-linear, compounding and systemic. Without resilient governments, markets and leaders, global cooperation could be threatened as countries turn inwards to protect themselves or lash outwards in order to gain advantage over resources. That’s what collapse looks like.
There is still time to act but the window is fast closing. As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Until we face up to the scale and violence of environmental collapse, until we recognise the systemic drivers of the Anthropocene, and until we act accordingly, we will merely wait for the fire next time.