By Susan Shain and 

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Credit…Photo Illustration by The New York Times/Shutterstock

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Saturday is Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity will have used “all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year,” as calculated by Global Footprint Network, an environmental research organization.

The group has been doing this annual assessment since 2006. That year, Earth Overshoot Day fell in October. The date then crept earlier every year until this one, when the coronavirus pandemic put a dent in the global economy.

To determine the date, Laurel Hanscom, the Global Footprint Network chief executive, said the group collects more than 15,000 data points per country, largely from United Nations sources.

Researchers then compare Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of resources the planet’s land and seas can generate in a year) to humanity’s ecological footprint (that year’s demand for things like food and urban space, and forests to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide), determine the gap and project the results onto the calendar.

If the whole world consumed like the United States, by the way, we would’ve hit Overshoot Day on March 14 this year.

While it’s an attention-grabbing approach, not all experts are on board.

Robert B. Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University, has raised several issues with Global Footprint Network’s methodology, including the fact it doesn’t distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable uses of crop and grazing land, and doesn’t account for other means of carbon sequestration, like ocean and soil.

Still, Dr. Richardson said, the initiative has value in its simplicity as a way of increasing “awareness about the impacts of human activities on ecosystems and the planet.”

Responding to the critiques, Ms. Hanscom also focused on the initiative’s simplicity, calling Earth Overshoot Day a “snapshot” similar to gross domestic product. “You don’t expect G.D.P. to show inequality within a country,” she said. “It’s an indicator that gives you a high-level understanding of how things are going.”

Although her organization is committed to pushing Earth Overshoot Day further back on the calendar, Ms. Hanscom was quick to point out that a pandemic wasn’t what she and her colleagues had in mind.

“The fact that Earth Overshoot Day is later this year is a reflection of a lot of suffering, and the reflection of imposed changes to our lives,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a silver lining to that.”

Far from a victory, Ms. Hanscom regards the delay of Earth Overshoot Day this year, and the pandemic that prompted it, as a warning sign.

“One way or another, humanity will come into balance with the Earth,” she said. “We don’t want it to be through disaster. We want it to be through intentional, designed efforts to make sure it doesn’t come at such a high and terrible human cost.”

New York Times Climate News