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SA is living on borrowed ecological resources

20 June 2024 - Earth Overshoot Day


Today (20 June) marks South Africa’s Earth Overshoot Day – the day when our consumption of ecological resources exceeds the planet's capacity to regenerate them for that year.

Jako Volschenk, Associate Professor in Strategy and Sustainability at Stellenbosch Business School emphasises the critical imbalance between our demand and nature’s capacity.  

Earth Overshoot Day is a wake-up call for South Africans that everything we consume from today onwards, is taken from the future."

“The date, calculated by the Global Footprint Network, provide a stark reminder that when we continue to exhaust nature’s budget yearly, we are maintaining a dangerous ecological deficit by depleting local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Prof Volschenk identifies South Africa’s growing appetite for meat as one of the major contributors to this deficit but acknowledges that alternatives could be more expensive.

“According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock farming is responsible for nearly 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transitioning to a plant-based diet can reduce dietary greenhouse gas emissions by up to 73%[1] with studies showing significant water shavings - 15,000 litres per kilogram of beef compared to 1,250 litres for wheat."

He advocates for accessible sustainable options to drive a cultural shift towards more eco-friendly diets: "In developing countries like South Africa, adopting plant-based diets such as vegan or vegetarian could be more affordable compared to Western-style diets, though they might still be more costly than the current local diets largely composed of staple foods.

According to a recent study[2] published, while plant-based diets can be up to a quarter cheaper than typical Western diets, they are approximately a third more expensive than the diets predominantly consumed by lower-income populations in regions like sub-Saharan Africa.”

Prof Volschenk emphasises the need for balanced and positive policies that promote sustainable choices without alienating individuals: "Negative policies like meat-shaming and flight-shaming, while aiming to raise awareness, can backfire by inducing guilt and resistance. Instead, promoting voluntary adoption of veganism through education and incentives for greener lifestyles proves more effective and inclusive."

He suggests subtle interventions, called nudging, to encourage sustainable behaviours is one avenue that should be explored. 

"Nudges can gently steer individuals towards greener choices, such as promoting vegetarian options on restaurant menus. These interventions use insights from behavioural economics to gently steer people towards more desirable outcomes, relying on indirect suggestions and positive reinforcements. For instance, when restaurants move risotto from the vegetarian to the main meal category on a menu, the orders for risotto increase by 50%.”

He says the number of vegans worldwide has increased by 300% over the past five years. In South Africa, a survey by Euromonitor indicated a 25% increase in the number of people identifying as vegan over the last three years.”

“By promoting voluntary veganism, we will see greater adoption for their inclusive and encouraging nature. Positive behavioural strategies focus on educating the public about the benefits of plant-based diets not just for the environment, but for health as well. Similarly, incentives for using greener modes of transportation or investing in renewable energy sources are seen as more empowering and less accusatory.”

He says governments and businesses play a crucial role. Policy measures such as carbon pricing, stricter environmental regulations, and subsidies for sustainable practices can drive significant changes. Additionally, companies are increasingly held accountable for their environmental footprint, prompting more to adopt greener practices voluntarily or out of necessity.

“Public awareness campaigns are equally important. They can reshape perceptions and foster a collective sense of responsibility towards sustainability. Celebrating local successes, like communities that have transitioned to renewable energy or conservation projects that have restored local biodiversity, can inspire others to take action.”

He says the most effective approach would be a blend of policies, nudges and public awareness campaigns.

“It's about finding the right balance between encouraging positive changes and providing realistic alternatives.”


[1] Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers." Science, 360(6392), 987-992. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216

[2] The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling studyAuthors: Marco Springmann et al. Publication Date: November 10, 2021 Journal: The Lancet Planetary HealthDOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00258-5


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