Ballyhoo Economic Risks of Overshoot

Ballyhoo Economic Risks of Overshoot

by Mathis Wackernagel

Mathis Wackernagel (Swiss, born 1962) is cocreator of the ecological footprint concept and president of Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think tank, with officesin Oakland, California; Geneva, Switzerland; and Brussels, Belgium.

If we could mark Ecological Deficit Days for each country that runs such a deficit with media campaigns on economic risk, we could significantly increase controversy and interest. The goal is to get countries (or more specifically their economic advisors) to call for advice.

One idea I fancy is to organize a class-action suit against US economics departments or business schools which promised students to prepare them for the world. They should be sued for damages because, in reality, they indoctrinated them with theories that are absolutely contradictory to physical reality – the ideology of infinite growth. Who would be the suing class? There are lots of students stuck with huge student loans and inadequate preparation for the world. Yet Universities have large endowments and mis-educated them. This could turn into a perfect storm and media spectacle: a perfect combination. Just imagine how this would spur wild opinions and what positions such a campaign could generate in public and private. OK, perhaps this is a bit too wild.

Let me now propose a more practical idea. It is built on the recognition that there is a great opportunity to communicate the economic risk of overshoot far more effectively than we have done before:  mainly, by linking it to people’s economic self interest.

Here’s how. Global Footprint Network has started a campaign (inspired by Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation) to mark every year’s Earth Overshoot Day. This is the day in the year by which, on aggregate, humanity has demanded as much from the Earth as the Earth can renew in the entire year. In 2013, this day fell on 20 August. This is what we calculate with our Ecological Footprint accounts, by comparing how much bio-productive space is needed for the human endeavor, compared to how much is available on the planet. If demand exceeds supply, then we are in overshoot.

This year’s campaign was the most successful so far – with 240 million people potentially reading the story on Internet, endless radio and media reports, plus a few TV stories. ‘La Stampa’ had Earth Overshoot Day as the main graphic feature on their front page.

We were more successful this year because we made a small shift in our communication. Rather than reporting how many planets it takes if everybody lived like a Swiss, an American or a Japanese person, we reported how many Switzerlands it takes to support Switzerland (about 4), or how many Americas to support the Americans (about 2), etc.

Now, the idea is to extend the campaign. Let’s bring the focus to the national level and engage ecological creditor countries. 85% of the world population that lives in a country that runs a bio-capacity deficit, i.e. demands more from nature than their ecosystems can renew. Select perhaps about 20 of them and run, in addition to the Ecological Overshoot Day, each country’s Ecological Deficit Day. Switzerland, using about four times more than what it has, would mark this day around March 30.

Using strong local media partners, the day would be used to develop a risk profile for the country that economic analysts of the country could easily understand and interpret. It would be done with a media and Internet campaign that highlights this risk assessment with statistics, tidbits of information and rich info-graphs. All attractively designed.

Figure 7: Ecological Deficits by Country

ecological deficit

Source: Global Footprint Network, 2013

The risk assessment would explore:

What are the implications of the bio-capacity and Footprint trends for the competitiveness of the country?

What are the current resource costs, and how have they changed?

What are the weak-points of the country’s energy system and what are realistic alternatives to overcome the gaps?

What does food security look like, considering trends in the country’s main trading partners (who themselves are moving towards larger biocapacity deficits)?

How could this risk affect the country’s credit worthiness and competitiveness?

Hopefully, we could develop this information package as a double page for the country’s key business newspapers (perhaps in collaboration with a key think-tank of that country, or an opinion leader), with supplementary stories for other news outlets.

Success would be measured by how many national governments call us afterwards for advice on how to address their resource risks. We hope for at least five countries to call after running this campaign for three years, plus many calls from large investors and asset owners (such as pension funds).

My question to you all is: are you interested in participating? We need help framing risks for countries you know (or live in), writing glimpses, advising on who should be media partners (we still have not fundraised for the idea, but are about to).

Recommended Resources

On the Overshoot Day Concept: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/earth_overshoot_day/

Press Reaction for 2013: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/blog/earth_overshoot_day_2013_around_the_world

Resource risks for sovereign bond investors: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/environmental_risk_in_sovereign_credits_e-risc