Living on borrowed time: We need to make choices now to slow resource consumption

Every year, the non-profit Global Footprint Network calculates the day when people begin to use more resources than the Earth can produce in a year. Earth Overshoot Day came earlier than ever before this year — yet another sign that we need to act to save the environment now, says Susan Huebert.

Voluntarily simplicity, minimalist living approaches are needed to help save the planet: Susan Huebert

According to the Global Footprint Network, as of July 29 this year, humans started consuming more resources than the planet can produce in 2019. We need to make lifestyle choices that let us live more sustainably, says Susan Huebert. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Since July 29 of this year, the people of the world have lived on borrowed time — or more accurately, on borrowed resources.

Each year, the international non-profit Global Footprint Network calculates the day when people begin to use more resources than the Earth can produce in a year — essentially, the point when we begin to take from the principal rather than the interest. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day came earlier than ever before, falling on July 29.

Unless something changes radically in the next few months, we as humans would need 1.75 times the Earth's current resources just to keep up with what we use, the Global Footprint Network says. It also notes that in the last 20 years, Earth Overshoot Day has moved up two months earlier, due to increasing resource use around the world.

The 2019 Earth Overshoot Day comes less than a year after many of the world's leading scientists warned that the planet might have only 12 years left before climate change causes irreparable harm to the environment. 

If those two warnings fail to prompt us to action, something is badly wrong with either our understanding of the environment or the will to act. Maybe we misunderstand the vast scope of the issue.

For years, many people have tried to do their part to help the planet, whether by consuming less or by reusing their belongings. Still, it is becoming evident that reducing, reusing, and recycling are putting only a small dent in the problem. As individuals, families, communities, and as a country, we need to take real action.

Solutions in simplicity

We need a new way of thinking and of living, not just as individuals, but as communities that can support and encourage each other. Two ideas that might be worth exploring are minimalism and voluntary simplicity.

The writers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves "the Minimalists," say they had to come close to the breaking point before they found the inner freedom to give up their lucrative careers to live a simpler life.

The basic idea behind minimalism, as practised by the two authors, is to dispose of anything that is not either useful or personally meaningful. Once extraneous belongings are gone, minimalists aim to simplify their needs and desires so that they buy and consume less. 

Minimalist living can reduce the amount of resources we consume. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Living as a minimalist could mean moving to a cabin in the woods and growing as much food as is feasible, using public transportation instead of private cars, or otherwise stepping away from the endless pursuit of possessions. 

Although preserving  the environment is not necessarily the aim of the minimalist lifestyle, that comes as a side benefit. When people live as simply as possible, they use fewer resources and learn to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of their actions, rather than practising endless consumption. 

For people who find minimalism too daunting, voluntary simplicity can be easier to accept and implement. The Simplicity Collective's mandate is to encourage a lifestyle that tries to use resources wisely, always choosing to leave resources for future generations rather than using them now.

The idea is not as much to eliminate all unnecessary belongings, but rather to choose smaller homes, fewer possessions and a generally simpler existence. 

Making such a far-reaching change alone is difficult, but collective action can help. Governments, for example, can put money and effort into affordable and reliable public transit systems to encourage people to take the bus rather than driving cars, and they can limit urban sprawl with wise policies and tax systems. 

Still, governments are only part of the solution. Individuals and families can choose to travel less often, to live in small homes close to the centre of town rather than occupying sprawling suburban mansions, and to walk or ride a bicycle to the grocery store or to work when possible, even if that involves additional time and effort. 

Earth Overshoot Day is a difficult concept to grasp fully, but its implications are huge. If we wish to pass on a viable planet to the next generation, we need to take drastic action now.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.