Overproduction Should Be Our Focus

Today is Earth Overshoot Day. The day[1] when humanity has used all biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year. For the rest of the year, human activity simply destroys Earth’s biological resources, which means Earth can regenerate less next year. We also know this overuse of biological resources is distributed massively unequally, both globally and based on income.

So why is overshoot happening and how can we stop it?

The mainstream answer to that question, like most questions like it, is that there hasn’t been enough innovation. The solution? More innovation.

Those who are brave enough to look at the latest empirical research will reject this answer as woefully inadequate. When taking into account the data, a much more accurate root cause seems to be overconsumption. Wealthy people buy too much stuff they don’t need and need to stop.

However, I feel stopping the analysis at overconsumption misses important aspects of the process.

We need to dig deeper.

Treadmill of Production

The treadmill of production (TOP) originally introduced by Allan Schnaiberg in the 80s, is a concept and theory of environmental sociology. The simplified version goes as follows:

  • Economic expansion is believed to be the core of every viable social, economic or environmental policy. Governments believe that jobs and tax revenues from private sector expansion grow more rapidly than citizen demand. Thus, government officials and agencies increasingly share a stake in the economic expansion of the private sector.

  • Because economic growth is unquestionably positive, consumption needs to grow so that the goods produced can be bought. To make this happen the state, together with private capital, makes sure e.g. that low-interest loans are available and that consumption is not stifled by legislation. Increasingly manipulative ads and production tricks like planned obsolescence make sure consumer desires keep increasing.

  • Social and ecological problems are believed to be best solved by "the market", i.e. by speeding up the treadmill.

To keep this treadmill going, nature is increasingly used as a cheap source for raw materials and an almost free "sink" for waste.

The analysis of TOP turns the story that people want more and production is just meeting this natural demand on its head. The economy isn’t demand-driven but supply-driven.

What’s actually going on is that overproduction is looking for outlets.

Stepping Off the Treadmill

If we accept this analysis of the capitalist economy the question becomes, how do we step off the treadmill to stop overshoot? I believe there are at least three strong complementary tactics, that are possible for many[2] to engage in.

First, as citizens, we can reject the assumption that economic expansion is needed to solve social and environmental problems and challenge the politicians and experts who maintain this narrative. This is the core of the degrowth movement and its demands are echoed by the IPCC with calls for sufficiency. Furthermore, degrowth means decolonization. As citizens, we can demand that the Global North pays the ecological debt it owes to the Global South.

Second, as citizens, we can demand legislation that targets unnecessary production. Examples are the right to repair, longer warranties and banning fossil fuel ads.

Third, as activists, we can make a big difference to stifle overproduction by rallying against new mining and extraction projects around the world. Materials that are never dug out of the ground are never put into useless gadgets.

Conclusion

British Petroleum’s PR campaign popularized the carbon footprint in the early noughts. BP invested in it because blaming individuals is a great way to divert attention away from the actions of the fossil fuel corporations.

I feel overconsumption has a similar dynamic. In the same way that lowering your carbon footprint does help, so does cutting overconsumption. Talking to your peers about either can also strengthen the common sense of sufficiency.

But I do believe that focusing more on overproduction than overconsumption will be more impactful to stop Earth overshoot in the long term.


1. A one-dimensional metric can’t capture all the nuances of Earth breakdown and more detailed metrics are needed for policy suggestions. However, a single day has merit as an intuitive heuristic and a communication tool.
2. Many but not all. I recognize that it is a big privilege to have available time and resources and a government that allows political participation.