On Aug. 8, the Earth passed a significant milestone that went largely unnoticed. While news headlines focused on the U.S. presidential election and the Rio Olympic Games, humanity exceeded its share of the Earth’s biocapacity for 2016. This annual milestone is known as Earth Overshoot Day, and it is tracked by the Global Footprint Network, an Oakland, Calif.–based think tank that monitors the ecological impact of governments and organizations worldwide. That our growing appetite for energy and materials requires more than one planet’s worth of resources annually—1.6 planets, to be exact—is a well-known, yet still abstract, notion. In other words, it takes the Earth more than one-and-a-half years to regenerate the resources we consume in a single year.
Quantifying these resources in the context of an annual allocation helps to make the fact more concrete. The date on which Earth Overshoot Day falls each year is calculated by dividing planetary biocapacity by humanity’s ecological footprint, and then multiplying by 365. The fact that this date occurs earlier every year should cause additional alarm. In 2014, it fell on Aug. 19. In 2015, it moved up to Aug. 13. We are losing more than a handful of days of planetary biocapacity each year, and we are continuing to deplete more resource stocks than the Earth can replenish and emitting more carbon dioxide than it can absorb—like running a negative balance in a bank account that borrows against future years’ income.
The profound implications of Earth Overshoot aren’t adequately acknowledged in either the media or academic discussions, but they address both non-renewable and renewable resources. Much of the negative sentiment in environmental circles today concerns the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels or critical metals. While economists agree about the dangers of over-consumption, the widely adopted visual paradigm for non-renewable resource exploitation, the McKelvey box, does not address overshoot. Developed by geologist Vincent McKelvey to track coal or gas utilization in 1972, the diagram (a variation of which is shown below) suggests constant incremental progress. Improved mining technology can increase contingent resources, while better prospecting can increase yet-undiscovered resources. Either way, we win—until diminishing returns render each economically prohibitive.
McKelvey's Box: A Model for Nonrenewable Resource Exploitation
Ironically, a common solution that both environmentalists and economists offer for the problem of diminishing non-renewable resources is to increase our use of renewables. But the picture for renewables is also problematic: chop down too many trees, and we must wait longer for new ones to grow in their place. And the strategy—which is currently gaining traction—only exacerbates the problem of ecological overshoot by accelerating the reduction of planetary biocapacity.
So how do we push back future Earth Overshoot days? I see three viable options (and a fourth, impractical one) all relating to resource conservation. The first option is austerity: tightening our belts and reducing our inputs altogether. The second is reuse, with an appropriate increase in re-purposed, re-engineered, and recycled resources. The third is technological advances, which—as seen in McKelvey’s diagram—can improve the efficacy of resource use. (The fourth is increased prospecting, but given that we have little remaining biosphere and are facing a “sixth extinction,” this strategy runs counter to the notion of reducing overshoot.) Architects and designers are already engaged in all three approaches, suggesting the potential for change ahead.
The “tiny house” movement is generating momentum among advocates of a simpler, more focused lifestyle. Saint Paul, Minn.–based Alchemy Architects’ WeeHouse, for example, is a small-footprint project designed as a prefabricated assembly to be trucked to the jobsite. WeeHouse's modules range from 300 square feet to 800 square feet in size and may be combined in a variety of configurations. The marriage of compact size and factory-based construction results in measurably lower material consumption and waste.
Clients may also accept the austere measure of staying put rather than building new, which leads to the option for reuse, as well as to a design opportunity. For example, a building renovation movement is currently gaining ground in Japan, a nation that has prioritized raze-and-build practices since World War II. Spurred by the prohibitive expense of real estate and a sluggish economy, architecture firms in Japan such as 403architecture[dajiba], Shingo Masuda + Katsuhisa Otsubo, and Schemata Architects/Jo Nagasaka, all recently profiled in Mark, have turned to creative retrofits. Viewing existing structures and discarded materials as opportunities for imaginative reuse, the architects are leading a trend that is unprecedented in a country with one of the shortest building lifespans. “Gradual renewal is more interesting than pursuing instant perfection,” Schemata president Jo Nagasaka told Mark. It may also save the planet.
Achieving a robust, re-engineered product market requires technological advancement. Technology can be utilized to reduce our ecological footprint in many ways, such as harvesting solar energy, recapturing waste heat, and manufacturing products that use less material without compromising performance.
One compelling trajectory is digital fabrication, which promises to deliver unprecedented resource control and waste reduction. Another is monitoring and response, made possible by smart materials and wireless sensor networks that can help a building respond to changing environmental conditions in real time. A third path is mimicking or adopting natural processes. For example, bio-tech startup BioMason’s novel bio-cement utilizes living microorganisms to create masonry units with minimal energy inputs—not unlike the way coral reefs form.
These examples provide a range of options for managing the impact of our resource consumption, from common strategies (retrofitting) to emerging ones (bio-cement). All might cynically be called solutions to so-called “First World problems,” in the sense that many developing societies lack the luxury of opting to downsize or install smart networks in buildings. However, ecological overshoot is also a First World problem in that the developed world is largely responsible for it (as the First World goes, so goes the world). Need we be reminded that buildings in the U.S. consume nearly half of all energy produced in the country, putting architects in the driver’s seat of potentially transformational solutions?
The time to act is upon us. Does your firm have a strategy to advise clients on how to downsize, reuse, or advance technology for planetary good? If not, Earth Overshoot Day 2017—anticipated to occur even earlier next year—seems like a fitting deadline for an environmental action plan.
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