Environmentalists involved in the zero waste community are just emerging from #PlasticFreeJuly – a month long opportunity to refuse single-use plastics and raise awareness about the devastating effects life in plastic is having on our planet. While instructing the masses on how to bring a reusable travel mug to the coffee shop, how to carry a reusable bag to avoid plastic ones and pushing local governments to impose strict regulations on single-use waste are important, there is a large piece of the puzzle missing from this conversation.
It is fitting, then, that we should round the corner from this activist outcry of choose to reuse! and refuse single-use! to run right smack into the cold, hard reality of #EarthOvershootDay – which falls on August 1st this year.
What is Earth Overshoot Day?
Basically the Global Footprint Network tracks how much of Earth’s natural resources humans are gobbling up – everything from water to rare earth minerals to clean air – runs a bunch of complicated calculations and comes up with the day each year when our species overshoots the planet’s ability to regenerate itself. In other words, today on August 1st we have used a year’s worth of the Earth’s resources in 7 months. This means we are currently using nature 1.7 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can renew. Put in yet another way, this year we’re using the equivalent of 1.7 earths to support human civilization.
Unsurprisingly given that our economic system is founded on infinite growth of goods and services and our population is rising, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier and earlier every year. If current trends keep pace with this, by 2030 we’ll be using two earths.
When viewed through the lens of Earth Overshoot Day, the waste problem we’re currently confronting suddenly becomes much bigger (ugh). It’s more than reusables and plastic bag bans and biodegradables and the environmentally friendly version of this or that product. What it really boils down to is this: we live in an infinite growth economy, where mass individual consumption of goods and services drives up GDP, on a planet of finite resources. The system we use to organize human relationships and determine the flow of our stuff is out of synch with the way the Earth functions.
We’re stealing from the future, selling it to the present and calling it GDP. – Paul Hawken
The Big Picture
Before we go any further, let’s weave in a few more astounding facts that may seem unrelated at first but most certainly are related to this conundrum:
➡ Canada’s richest 87 families have as much wealth as everyone living in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island combined.
➡ None of the world’s top industries would be profitable (none of them) if they actually paid for the natural capital they use and pollute (the Earth’s resources). In this way, businesses publicize costs and privatize profits.
➡ Recent research has exposed a behaviour-impact gap in the environmental world: impacts on the planet have little to do with education or awareness of environmental issues and little to do with one’s intention to act on that awareness. Instead, researchers found that one’s ecological footprint increased in tandem with income. While low income families were more likely to be ‘brown’ consumers (not thinking about the environment), they still had smaller ecological footprints than high income ‘green’ families.
The more educated a person is, the higher their income is likely to be, the more energy they use and thus, the higher their carbon footprint.
It raises the question: how much of a reduction in carbon footprints can be achieved by merely increasing the environmental awareness of society without actually affecting the socio-economic system…Consumers offset the impact of their environmental behaviour by consuming more. – The ecological footprint of green and brown consumers: introducing the behaviour-impact-gap ( BIG ) problem
The Revolution Will Not Be Bought
If we want to #MoveTheDate as the Global Footprint Network is challenging us to do, if we want to build a sustainable, viable system on this planet, we have to address the root cause of where the waste is coming from. And that root cause is unsustainable infinite growth on a finite planet where a select few people steal our collective natural resources only to sell them back to us as products we don’t even really need (that then break down after only a few uses) so that those same select few can hoard wealth at the top. While the rest at the bottom suffer the negative consequences of poverty and environmental degradation. This is a systemic issue and the solution to it can only be systemic.
First of all, we need to deal with inequality. We don’t think of inequality as being an environmental issue, but research shows that it is: places that experience high levels of inequality also experience more consumption of cheaply made products that inevitably end up in landfills. Greater inequality is the key to increasing the cultural pressure to consume. The church of infinite economic growth disseminates its sermons through an endless stream of advertising designed to manipulate the most fundamental aspect of our nature: we are social creatures.
“In more unequal societies, there is a proliferation of products that are designed not to last, so as to allow greater profits to be made. Producing endless must-have new versions exploits the higher levels of emotional insecurity that living with great inequality generates.” – The Guardian
We pray at the alter of consumption not because we necessarily need or even want more stuff, but because in “economically unequal countries the pressure to buy items to keep up with your peers, with ‘people who count’, is enormous” (The Guardian). This is especially the case with status symbols: clothing, technology, cars. It comes as no surprise then that more unequal societies spend a higher proportion of their Gross Domestic Product on advertising (The Spirit Level, p. 228). Keep up with the Kardashians or risk social obsolescence.
The second thing we need to do is make the leap from a take-make-dispose linear economic model into a Circular Economy. Waste is embedded in the very fabric of our current system and is therefore inevitable (for instance, consider the exponential rise in built-in and planned obsolescence whereby companies design products to fail in order to encourage people to consume yet more stuff). A Circular Economy, on the other hand aims to ‘design out’ waste. Waste does not exist – products are designed and optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. This sets it apart from disposal and even recycling where large amounts of embedded energy and labour are lost.
The Revolution will be Reused, Repaired, Upcycled and Shared
Imagine a world where you have low-cost access to common, infrequently used products needed for business or pleasure — tools, toys, musical instruments, camping gear…the list is infinite. Imagine an economy that prioritizes sharing high-quality durable goods, wasting less, and encouraging cooperation. Imagine a close-knit community co-creating a sustainable future. – Shareable
While the collaborative consumption we advocate through the Toronto Tool Library and Sharing Depot is by no means the only solution, it does present one model for addressing the two factors mentioned above:
1) Our library of things provides access to the same items to everybody, regardless of income. No one has more or less of any of the things in our libraries than anyone else. This presents an opportunity to reimagine our relationships with each other outside of and away from the intense social anxiety generated by the broader consumer society.
2) Our project has been featured in two articles from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation detailing the ways collaborative consumption fuels this much-needed shift into a more sustainable economy for people and the planet (you can read them here and here). Borrowing things you only need occasionally and then putting them back for the next person to use is already one aspect of the Circular Economy. Our spaces allow people to access camping gear, tools, board games, children’s toys, sports equipment and event supplies without individually buying them to own. All those resources involved in the creation and shipping of products are saved by people recirculating the same items over and over again within a community.
3) We also partner with organizations who advocate for repair and reuse. Repair Cafe Toronto runs repairathons every Sunday at our 830 St Clair West location to help people repair all kinds of broken items to save them from going to landfill. Boomerang Bags Toronto runs free workshops out of our 1803 Danforth ave space to turn unwanted and dead-stock fabric into reusable bags (there’s a workshop coming up this month!).
“The miracle is this, the more we share, the more we have.” – Leonard Nimoy
It turns out that Nimoy’s statement is just as meaningful when applied to Earth’s resources as it is applied to human relationships. On #EarthOvershootDay, let’s consider sharing more to #MoveTheDate.
Learn more about joining the Library of Things movement in Toronto.
I’m @itsahashtaglife, a social media manager, storyteller and blogger for non-profits and charities in Toronto. I take the tools and techniques of traditional digital media marketing and apply them to organizations working hard to shift our world into a new story – one that is more sustainable and supportive of people and the planet.