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Addressing “Overshoot” and our Global Footprint

As with many of you, the end of the year provides me an opportunity for reflection and evaluation. One area of concern in particular in this era of environmental crisis is my ecological footprint. This is difficult of course, but while all around us is doom and gloom, we desperately need to maintain an attitude of being empowered to make positive changes, however small. Remember, as Schumacher said, “small is beautiful!”

I was kind of excited for this year’s “review.” I’d made several changes that I hoped would yield positive results. We’d dropped down to one car, finished installing solar panels on our garage roof and joined a local CSA to address the quality of our food. The last few years I’ve made an assessment using an organization called Earth Overshoot Day and it’s partner, Global Footprint Network.

The primary evaluation is based on the ecological footprint calculator. For example, to calculate how we as a species in total are doing with regard to our environmental impact, you take the earth’s biocapacity, divide that by humanity’s ecological footprint, multiply by 365 and what you get is Earth Overshoot Day, the date at which the human population has exhausted it’s allotment of earth’s resources for that year. Not surprisingly, earth overshoot day for 2022 was July 28th! After that we were operating in a deficit situation, “raiding earth’s pantry” so to speak, or stealing from our grandchildren to put it more bluntly.

I know, I know, it’s so much easier to ignore what we’re doing to the earth, pretend it isn’t happening and consume our way to oblivion – except we can’t! The ramifications of that course of action are immediate and negative and life negating. Not just for “those over there” but for you and me here as well as for the rest of the created order! But I digress.

So, I plug in all my data such as size of house, miles driven or flown or on public transport, kind of food eaten and numerous other pertinent metrics. I click “calculate” and . . . two figures stare back at me – March 20 and 4.6 earths (long silence followed by curses). This year my personal overshoot day is the 20th of March and if everyone lived like me, we would need 4.6 earths to sustain that level of consumption! More silence. It couldn’t be right of course so I recalculated and recalculated, this time figuring out how much would be offset by all the trees that I’ve planted. Some, but not much better. Somehow it’s little consolation that my footprint is about half that of the average American (US average per capita is 8.04 earths), my footprint is still twice that of the average global citizen.

Having just returned from Kenya where the organization I direct, Africa Exchange, opened an Integrated Child Development Center in the very remote northern region of Turkana, I decided I’d plug in the details for a Turkana person. Easily the most stressed population group in that country, the Turkana eke out a living on camel milk and goats, cows don’t survive the arid terrain, nor do crops, particularly after four years of drought. They currently require significant amounts of food aid. Surprise, surprise, my calculations for a Turkana person indicated no overshoot day and .4 earths!

Africa Exchange is trying desperately to address this imbalance through several proven strategies including increasing child survival through the establishment of Integrated Child Development Centers; enhanced opportunities for girl child post primary and university education in order to delay the age of marriage and, thus, placing decisions about child birth and fertility back into the hands of women; enhancing the resilience of marginalized communities through community development, appropriate technology and other strategies. Our attention, however, cannot only be on affecting the behavior of others. It should be primarily to change our own behavior so that we are less a part of the problem!

The dilemma that arises from the exercise above teaches me at least three things:

1. On balance, we are utilizing/consuming/extracting more resources that the “earth bank” can sustain.

2. The size of the human population and it’s current resource requirement in total is squeezing out the viability of other species. Extinction is happening on an unprecedented scale.

3. The current technologies that fuel our existence are on balance carbon intensive and desperately need conversion to cleaner methods.

In summary, there are too many of us using too much of the earth’s resource too quickly and the technology we rely on is too dirty. And if I might add, our entire GDP-based economic system requires a major rethink, but that’s a topic for another day!

So, how shall we live in 2023? That’s a question that each of us will need to answer for ourselves. If it would be helpful, I’ve proposed a 5-fold path toward environmental sustainability that focuses on strategies that each of us can employ to address the imbalances I’ve highlighted above. Please share your own strategies so that together we can face our future with a little more hope and a little less angst.

Sam Harrell is the executive director of Africa Exchange,, an organization founded by him and his wife Melody. Africa Exchange creates partnerships with rural communities in Kenya to enhance local capacity, protect vulnerable children and preserve fragile environments.

Sam has lived most of his life in Kenya and works with a Kenyan staff to expand the work, now in 15 communities across the country.

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