The Steady Stater

Overshoot Day: A Conversation with Laurel Hanscom

September 20, 2020 Brian Czech
The Steady Stater
Overshoot Day: A Conversation with Laurel Hanscom
Chapters
The Steady Stater
Overshoot Day: A Conversation with Laurel Hanscom
Sep 20, 2020
Brian Czech

Overshoot Day — the day when our resource consumption exceeds planetary capacity — fell on August 22 this year. In other words, we’re living on borrowed time and starting to pay the price with climate change, sea-level rise, and biodiversity loss. The date is calculated by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a key ally in advancing the steady state economy. In this episode of The Steady Stater, Brian Czech interviews his first guest on the podcast, GFN CEO Laurel Hanscom.

Show Notes Transcript

Overshoot Day — the day when our resource consumption exceeds planetary capacity — fell on August 22 this year. In other words, we’re living on borrowed time and starting to pay the price with climate change, sea-level rise, and biodiversity loss. The date is calculated by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a key ally in advancing the steady state economy. In this episode of The Steady Stater, Brian Czech interviews his first guest on the podcast, GFN CEO Laurel Hanscom.

Richard Tibbetts:

From the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, this is the Steady Stater, a podcast dedicated to discussing limits to growth in the steady state economy.

Brian Czech:

Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Brian Czech, and today we have a special treat. In this, our seventh episode, we're actually going to have a guest. Now, we've always planned to make this a bit of a talk show and my guesstimate, so to speak, is that we'll have guests perhaps 50% of the time. Our first guest is Laurel Hanscom, the Chief Executive Officer of the Global Footprint Network, an organization that is extremely important to us at the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, and I think you'll see why as we discuss with Laurel the work of her organization. Before joining the Global Footprint Network, Laura worked at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington DC and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. She has a BA and an MA in geography from San Diego State University. And her research there focused on climate change vulnerability and agriculture. Laurel Hanscom, welcome to the Steady Stater.

Laurel Hanscom:

So great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Brian Czech:

Thank you. Laurel, we want to talk about Overshoot Day, which landed on August 22. This year. First, though, what is the mission of the Global Footprint Network?

Laurel Hanscom:

Thank you so much, you know, the mission of our organization is to make decisions in line with moving out of overshoot. Our vision is a world where everyone lives well within the means of our one planet, within the means of nature, so very much thinking about how we can provide tools and data to support decisions that can help us get there.

Brian Czech:

Well, that's certainly a laudable mission, really important in this century. And it's actually quite similar to our mission. But what are the main ways that the Global Footprint Network goes about pursuing that mission?

Laurel Hanscom:

So the main ways that we have looked at pursuing our mission sort of changed through the years. Initially, our goal is to get national governments on board with using the ecological footprint as an indicator to measure their progress towards sustainability. In that process, we produced national footprint and biocapacity accounts, which we now publish on an open data platform. But what we realize is the data isn't quite enough. It isn't enough to put a graph in front of someone and assume that they're going to understand what it means and the direness of the situation, so to speak. So we've done a lot of work in the last five to ten years to work with partners to show applications of the footprint, in terms of working with cities, governments, but also a lot of nonprofits to show our impact on the planet. The other two big ways are through communication. So we have, as you mentioned, Earth Overshoot Day, which is our annual campaign. Earth Overshoot Day is the day of the year, of course, when we have used all the resources that will be regenerated over the entire year. And so annually, we put publish that number, we post that date rather. And we have a large campaign to raise awareness about the things that we can do to actually move the date. And then we also have an ecological footprint calculator. So anyone can go online to footprintcalculator.org and calculate their own footprint and also their own overshoot day to see how they stack up to the other countries in the world.

Brian Czech:

And of those tools and resources that you have on the website, do you know which one is most frequently visited?

Laurel Hanscom:

Hands down it is the footprint calculator. We get a ton of coverage and media attention on Earth Overshoot Day, but really the footprint calculator is where people connect with the information and understand how it relates to their own lives.

Brian Czech:

Yeah, would you have any sense of what percentage of visitation comes from, let's see, students or any other breakdown among various elements of society?

Laurel Hanscom:

We'd like to think that everyone who takes it is a lifelong learner, but I think just over half. We understand that just over half are students, either in university or in high school, so we do we do recognize that a huge base of our traffic comes from young people who are hopefully taking that information with them and going out and changing the world. Right? Yeah.

Brian Czech:

And how long does it take a visitor to run their their footprint calculation?

Laurel Hanscom:

I think the average amount of time that people spend on the site, or the footprint site, is about seven minutes, so I think you can get through it in just six or seven minutes, but there are opportunities to put in more detail, so if you're really interested, there's plenty to dig into.

Brian Czech:

Well, we certainly encourage everybody to do that at least once and actually do it a number of times and try to ratchet it down. You go to www.footprintnetwork.org and it's a pretty prominent feature at the website. Well, I can tell you that we're huge fans of yours at CASSE. You're one of our strongest allies in helping raise awareness of limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. And by the way, I understand you got a very early start in thinking about limits to growth. I mean, a really, really early start. Can you tell us just a little bit about that too?

Laurel Hanscom:

Probably much earlier than most. So I guess, my father was a professor at San Diego State University and he taught Human Ecology and Biology and all of his career, in his lectures, he used information about the steady state economy, Daly's work, all of the ideas around limits to growth, and they're all featured very prominently in his lectures. And so as a kid growing up, I heard about this stuff all the time. Around the dinner table, it would be something that, not necessarily a topic of discussion, 'Laurel, here's what steady state economy is, and this is what you should do,' right? But certainly, it imbued my understanding of how the world worked and so when I did get to college and learned, for the first time in a formal way, about steady state economy, it felt like gravity, right? It felt like, 'well, of course, of course, this is how the world works.' And so sometimes I get really confused when I talk to economists in particular, who sort of have a disconnection with the physical reality of the planet and the physical reality of our world, and believe that we can continue infinitely with the kind of growth that is really undermining our ability to thrive as a species.

Brian Czech:

Wow. Well, that's a fascinating story. And yes, very unique. I think most people don't get into the limits to growth findings until quite a ways into their career in environmental sciences, typically, they're coming from. So it's great to have somebody on our first interview that has that kind of background. And one of the reasons we wanted to interview you at this time, in particular, is what just happened on August 22nd. That was Overshoot Day, which was when Laurel, I'll let you finish that sentence and elaborate a bit on that.

Laurel Hanscom:

Right, so August 22nd, was the day in 2020 when humanity used all the resources that will be consumed over the entire year. And this is very significantly three weeks later, just over three weeks later, than it was the year prior.

Brian Czech:

Three weeks later. Okay. And is that, do you have a hypothesis? I guess we're probably thinking something about COVID.

Laurel Hanscom:

Very much so, yes. So normally we would celebrate something like a huge shift in the date, so something later in the year, but unfortunately, this came with a big toll, with a big cost, with the the contractions that came from the COVID-19 virus and how that has essentially brought a lot of hurt and suffering to people around the world.

Brian Czech:

Right. Yeah, in some ways, we like to try to see the silver lining, but it hasn't been the greatest example of ratcheting down the size of that economy in terms of the struggles that's entailed or the you know, the reasons for it to start with.

Laurel Hanscom:

It does give us a glimpse of what could be, right? We saw the world come together and very quickly take action to save lives. And I think there are lessons that can be garnered from what we've experienced over the last six or eight months. So while it isn't something to celebrate, I certainly think that we can take some lessons from this and see how that global collaboration can be enacted. I mean, we've been talking about this for years, right? This kind of thing needs to happen, but we really want it to happen intentionally. We want it to be done with with striving and good lives for people at the center of that rather than through a disaster, like what we see.

Brian Czech:

Yeah, that's for sure. Yeah. Like Herman Daly used to say, what we want is a successful steady state economy, not a failed growth economy.

Laurel Hanscom:

Exactly. In other words, we would like to do it by design, not disaster.

Brian Czech:

Yes. Not by disaster. Well, looking back then at some of the earlier Overshoot Days and Overshoot Day campaigns, do any come to mind as being particularly impactful or memorable in some way?

Laurel Hanscom:

Interesting question, I think, you know, the first actual campaign, Overshoot Day campaign, was in 2006, I believe, 2006/2007. Prior to that obviously, there had been overshoot days. Right. We've been in overshoot since the early 70's. But that was the first time we started having annual campaigns. But I think, biggest, sort of most meaningful shift that there's been since the beginning of the campaign is this idea of moving from just focusing on the doom and gloom of how scary the idea of overshoot is, to this idea that we're really we're really trying to focus on how do we move the date? So we incorporated #movethedate as a way to, I guess, to galvanize support for the solution side. And how do we change this trajectory? How do we move the day and make changes in our lives and our society that'll keep moving that date back to December 31st and then beyond?

Brian Czech:

#movethedate, yeah, that's a great one. Yeah, you guys have a lot of great slogans and, you know, rhetoric in the positive sense at your website, too. I imagine you have to talk a lot of times and maybe shift your strategy at times as well, in terms of that balance between alarming the public about overshoot, and presenting a desirable solution to it in terms of moving the date. It sounds like you've trended in recent years toward the latter, but do you have criteria that sort of affect that in real time?

Laurel Hanscom:

I think what we try to do is be realistic about what we're working with, right? So we don't see our data as being particularly disaster-pushing, focusing on the urgency, although it does, it's more than it's the context in which we're living, right? So the fact is, we are using more than our planet can renew every year. That's just a given. And what we do with that information is kind of up to us. I believe personally, in the, you know, the power of human ingenuity, the power of us believing in each other and lifting people up, but I also understand that people act in their own self interest as well. So I think we try to find ways to reach people where they are and present the information in a way that doesn't elicit reactions that will sort of scare them into inaction, right? What we don't want to do is make people believe that we can't change this because we can, I mean, the trajectory is not great at the moment, but we as a species, have this unimaginable depth of of ingenuity and power when we put our minds to something and so I think that a lot of our messaging is centered around how do we pull that out, rather than squashing it?

Brian Czech:

Do you ever wish that some of that ingenuity was geared a little more toward our policy goals, like our economic goals, for example, and maybe not so much technology to try to overcome or, you know, force our way over those limits and move that day just with raw technology?

Laurel Hanscom:

Absolutely. Ingenuity is not...technology does not have a monopoly on ingenuity. I think ingenuity comes across all parts of society. I think you see this in the way that, for example, younger environmentalists are centering their work in intersectionality. That's ingenuity. That's moving past systems and patterns in the past that didn't serve the greater good, didn't serve society. And absolutely, in terms of economics, rethinking what wealth is, rethinking what success looks like. All of that requires us to think harder and to believe in different things. And so no, there's no technological solution that is going to be panacea for what we're facing. It has to come in all different parts of the work that we do.

Brian Czech:

We've been talking with Laurel Hanscom of the Global Footprint Network and we'll be right back with her, but let's take a short non-commercial break now with Rick Tibbetts.

Richard Tibbetts:

Hi there, we hope you're enjoying the show. I just wanted to take this short intermission to suggest a book that I think you would love. The book is called Uncommon Sense, shortcomings of the human mind for handling big picture, long-term challenges. The author is Peter Seidel, one of the elder statesman of sustainable studies. Seidel's unique contribution is an exploration of human nature, of the human brain, and why humans are so severely challenged to deal with limits to growth, I highly recommend this book, and you can preorder a copy at www.steadystate.org. Just pan over to the Discover menu, and then click on the "Steady State Press" item. And you'll find it there. Now, back to the show.

Brian Czech:

I watched that two and a half minute video you sent me called "National Footprint Accounts: Ecological Balance Sheets for 180 Countries." It's really pretty effective and educational. Of course, it's not so easy to communicate the principles of that two and a half minute video without the visual effects, but do you think you can give us a one-minute version of it for the podcast?

Laurel Hanscom:

I could try. That's for sure.

Brian Czech:

Or two-minute version.

Laurel Hanscom:

All right. I'll see what I can do. The national footprint and biocapacity accounts, where do I even start? So the national footprint and biocapacity accounts calculate ecological footprint and biological capacity for every country, region and the world. We use up to 15,000 data points per country per year to calculate footprint in five different biocapacity, categories and six different use categories, including carbon footprint. We can think of this as a balance sheet where biocapacity is income and ecological footprint is expenditures. So it helps countries understand how far they are in the red, so to speak, so that we can compare, across the world, our impact on the planet.

Brian Czech:

That's a really good way to describe it. Certainly, the accounts should, at some point in the 21st century, be a central negotiation point for international diplomacy pertaining to sustainability.

Laurel Hanscom:

We believe that to be true. You know, we have data going back to 1961, up until the most recent data years that are available, and so we we can look at these trends and we can actually map it against economic trends to understand how world events and economic changes have have impacted footprint and biocapacity as well.

Brian Czech:

Well, you know, another thing you did a good job of in the video was pointing out that any nation faces some really difficult trade offs among land use decisions. For example, well, you use the example of forest restoration. So a country may want to restore forests for purposes of carbon sequestration, but that can come at the expense of short-term agricultural production. So, what would you say are some of the other most common trade offs a country faces when trying to do the right thing about climate change? Not only climate change, but you know, getting its ecological footprint back down to its biocapacity.

Laurel Hanscom:

Right. Well, the way the ecological footprint accounts work is essentially, we are looking at how much land or land equivalence, right, are available versus how many are required to provide the goods and services that we all use. And so, in any case, any land use, if you have land use for one thing, you can't use it for another. You can't have, you know, you can't have fields, agricultural fields, in the same place that you have a freeway or you know, a parking lot, right? So the decisions that we make in terms of how land is used, inevitably influenced what we do. And so in every case, every choice, every decision that's made around how we use the space that we're allotted, it's a trade off. So the agricultural and forest land trade off is a big one, of course, but also, you know, built up land. If we're extending into otherwise undeveloped land, then we're removing that land's ability to provide the services that they were previously providing. And here in California, they are also sort of comorbidities, so to speak, whereas we extend into forest land in our development, we are also putting ourselves in harm's way of things like wildfires, like the ones that we've seen over the last several weeks.

Brian Czech:

Yeah, that's a real wild card, but you, I think, as an environmental scientist, you could see that coming. I remember taking courses in, I think was 1988, from Malcolm Zwolinski, at the University of Washington. He was telling us back then how this is a done deal. There were going to be these conflagrations, especially in the Chaparral habitats of California, and you're seeing it all over now.

Laurel Hanscom:

I grew up in a rural part of San Diego County and, you know, this has been part of our reality for a very long time. And then I remember taking classes early in my educational career about fire suppression and how that leads to the really destructive kinds of wildfires that we've seen. And it's all related. I think one of the big things that we as an organization are trying to bring to people's attention is that these things that we're talking about, they're not separate issues. Everything comes back to the same overlapping and sort of systemic and system-wide issues and I think the ecological footprint has been a powerful tool because it brings together different aspects of our natural resource overuse, and how we can, you know, how to identify places that we can make changes in the system to improve our ability to thrive on the planet.

Brian Czech:

Well, in gathering the data in and making the calculations, I would imagine you get some real keen insights as well to what may be the limiting factor in a particular country or region or on the planet. Let's let's put it in raw macroeconomic terms like GDP. And at CASSE, I think you're aware of this, we often say that GDP is the ecological footprint in the sense that it's that human economic activity, you know, that's taking the resources. But anyway, if you were to look at it that way, let's say that, let's say you're a conventional economist, and you actually want the global economy to grow. You're an economist at the World Bank and you are sticking to the "rising tide lifts all boats" metaphor and strategy and so you want the global economy to grow. What would you say based upon your research there at the network would be the limiting factor if you had to identify that?

Laurel Hanscom:

The limiting factor to our ability to continue growing the economy is the planet's ability to regenerate.

Brian Czech:

Any particular, like of those five elements of biocapacity, would there be one that stands out to you at all? Or is it pretty much just the mix, the emergent property of those five?

Laurel Hanscom:

I think, you know, one of the things that I can say, I mean, I do think that we like to take all of these things together, I think, you know, as you all do, we see ecological footprint and GDP as sort of similar indicators in the sense that they're giving us this big sense and it's important to have local and complimentary indicators to help drill down into the separate aspects of that. But, I mean, as we look at the data, you know, 60% of the global ecological footprint is the carbon footprint and so, until we get the carbon footprint in check, we don't really have a shot of getting out of overshoot.

Brian Czech:

Okay, well, we actually may want to bring you back on some time to talk about that element in particular, but we don't have too much time left, so let's shift gears a little bit and maybe you can tell us about some of the countries, the nations that you've been able to work most closely with. For example, are there any countries that have adopted ecological footprinting techniques for purposes of their own natural resource planning or even economic planning?

Laurel Hanscom:

So the most recent example I have of of work we've done with a country is Scotland, especially the Scottish EPA has adopted One-Planet Prosperity as their sort of foundational, I should say their framework for how they approach their work. And this is incredible, because there are about a dozen different countries that have included ecological footprint as an indicator in either their planning or environmental or sustainability plans. More than that, actually, but with different levels of government, but SEPA, the Scottish EPA, has really taken this on wholeheartedly. And so the One-Planet framework, it now guides all of their decision making and it has given them a way to sort of work more closely with other government departments, right? So the work that they're doing there has been really, I think it's been really powerful and I hope that other EPA's and other, I mean, if economic departments could take ecological footprint as an indicator that helps guide their work, I think the world would be a better place.

Brian Czech:

Yes, that is a fantastic precedent. And thanks so much for letting us and our listeners know about that, because we're gonna look into that and tout that, just like we tout...We often recommend, people ask us all the time about 'well, what should we be looking at then, if GDP is no longer the measure of success?' And our response is, well, first of all, we don't want to just get rid of GDP. It's like if you have an obese patient, for example. If you're a doctor with an obese patient, the last thing you want to tell them is to throw away the scale. They need to monitor that even more going forward. But then we have to bring out the stethoscopes and the blood pressure cuffs and so on. Yeah, and the ecological footprint is one of those. I don't know. I guess you would pick your choice among the instruments. We could talk about that sometime. But let's see. Are there any like low hanging fruits in terms of the points that you would like us to make during this interview?

Laurel Hanscom:

I think that in steady state economy and the work that CASSE is doing, and the emphasis on GDP, it is important because it is a metric that is very well known from a policy perspective. We would love that ecological footprint had the power that GDP does to help drive decision making and I think we have a lot to learn from how GDP has been integrated. But I do think that ecological footprint needs to be looked at alongside. And I think that there's a very strong correlation in many cases, but my hope is there wouldn't be, right? Like, my hope is that there would be a way that there'd be more divergence. And I wonder even if that's possible. So maybe that's the deeper discussion we get into one of these days, but I think it's really interesting to look at them alongside one another and I think that it's a great opportunity for your fans, your listeners, to dig a little deeper too. One of the coolest things about, we put all of our data online for free on an open data platform a few years ago, and one of the coolest parts of that is it gave us this opportunity to have a two-way conversation. We have all this data. We produce it. There's all kinds of interesting things that you can learn from it, but we're not economists and we're not necessarily, we don't necessarily, as a smaller organization, have the time or energy to go down all of these different possible ways that the data can be interpreted, so I would hope or encourage you and your folks over there to start to dig into the free data that we have available online. And maybe we can come up with some cool ways to present that and double the impact or hopefully more of the work that we can do together.

Brian Czech:

Let's plan on it. Yeah, we've dabbled a bit with some of the data there, but we need to take a much deeper dive. You know, we have this project, we call the GDP correlates project and we look at various variables that we hypothesize would be correlated with GDP, and then we investigate the causality. So, you know, we do have a rough correlation performed already with the ecological footprint and GDP, but yeah, that's definitely due for more diligence and more depth. You know, we've had quite an informative interview already with Laurel Hanscom, the chief executive officer of the Global Footprint Network. And again, we encourage our listeners to check out the really important work they do at www.footprintnetwork.org. And, Laurel, thank you so much for coming on to the show. Once again, you're our very first guest.

Laurel Hanscom:

I'm honored.

Brian Czech:

Well, it's I think it's our honor too, so thank you so much, and we'll have you on again for sure. And keep up the great work out there and be careful with the COVID and the fires and all the other challenges out there.

Laurel Hanscom:

Thank you, Brian. You too.

Brian Czech:

Okay. Bye now.