Sustainable Alaska: Earth Overshoot Day

Today as I write this article (on Aug. 1), I reflect on the significance of it being Earth Overshoot Day. That is, we humans have used up the annual allotment of natural resources that the Earth can sustainably provide. It is a calculation made each year by Global Footprint Network, a U.S. nonprofit organization and is a striking reminder of our lavish consumption culture and its long-lasting impacts, many of which are not yet readily apparent. From now until Dec. 31, we will be taking out a loan that we can never repay, as the resources we will be using are not possible to regenerate, leaving less and less for future generations of humans and other living beings with whom we share this world.


Aug. 1 is the earliest day on which Earth Overshoot Day has fallen. It has been shifting back on the calendar ever since 1970, when it fell on Dec. 31. It is also calculated for each country, revealing that the USA already reached its overshoot day way back on March 15. If everyone in the world lived like the average American, we would need five Earths — and those are of course nowhere in sight.

As a geoscientist, educator and a mom, I lament in the urgency in this situation, but I also see the enormous opportunity and responsibility we have to redirect our trajectory. With awareness, education and political pressure, changes are taking hold. As nations worldwide endure unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires, downturns in fisheries productivity, and alarming scarcities of freshwater, wildlife and minerals, more people are tuning into the reality and fragility of our situation. People and businesses are beginning to address the tremendous problem of plastic pollution, recycling of some common materials is becoming the norm rather than the exception, and many countries are making great strides in switching to renewable energy sources. Even in the U.S., renewable energy jobs have surpassed those in the fossil fuel industry.

Here in Juneau, our city Assembly recently approved the Juneau Renewable Energy Strategy, supporting a forward-looking blueprint for how to manage our city in a sustainable manner with tremendous cost-savings and environmental stewardship for decades to come. And over here at UAS, our local university is offering numerous classes related to sustainability.

This coming fall semester, which begins Aug. 27, the Environmental Science and Geography programs are offering “Earth and Environment” (ENVS/GEOG 102), which is an introduction to physical geography that includes the study of Earth’s climate system, hydrologic networks, oceanography and geologic foundations, taught by Dr. Eran Hood. Also offered is “Sustainable Resource Management” (ENVS/GEOG 313), a class that focuses on the science and management practices of resources such as water, forest, soil, and fisheries. The course “Natural Hazards” (ENVS/GEOG 213), taught by yours truly, examines the causes and effects of natural hazards and disasters, as well as their avoidance and mitigation. Finally, there’s ENVS 375: “Climate Change and Aquatic Ecosystems in Southeast Alaska,” a seminar-style class taught by Dr. Jason Fellman investigating links between freshwater ecosystem health and our local warming climate.

On the Humanities side, Dr. Will Elliott is offering a new class entitled “Discard Studies” (ENGL 418). In this course, students will investigate what literature has to say about the social and environmental problems related to pollution and waste. Students will build the skills they need as writers and readers to succeed in college as well as build on their capacity as members of a global community to address one of its greatest challenges.

UAS’s Business and Public Administration is offering “Natural Resource Policy” (PADM 635), taught by Dr. Jim Powell, who is also a newly appointed member of the CBJ Sustainability Commission. This course uses an applied sciences approach and includes a case study on sustainable fisheries and sustainability concepts.

The Ketchikan campus is offering ANTH 280: “Coastal Resources and Traditional/Ecological Knowledge,” which focuses on uses of local coastal foods and resources in southern Southeast Alaska and integrates biological analysis with traditional ecological knowledge presented by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural teachers and elders.

This fall’s course offerings at UAS provide a diverse mix of perspectives, approaches, and methods of understanding and integrating our knowledge of how we manage (and mismanage) our natural resources, evaluate how we relate to our natural surroundings, and provide important tools for safeguarding and improving ecological and human sustainability into the future.

This Earth Overshoot Day, consider deepening your knowledge of the condition of our global ecosystem and the resources we draw from it. It will be a great year when we finally move the annual overshoot date in the other direction.

• Sonia Nagorski is an Assistant Professor of Geology at UAS. “Sustainable Alaska” is a monthly column, appearing on the first Friday of every month. It’s written by UAS Sustainability Committee members who wanted to promote sustainability. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.


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