Earth Overshoot Day: Ecological debt, What is it and why does it matter?

By Avanthi Dissanayake


Our lives today might cost the lives of our children and grandchildren tomorrow. The world is heading towards massive debt. If we don’t act now, it will be too late.

Right now, Covid-19 is front and centre of our concerns. The pandemic has devastated lives and economies. It has highlighted income inequalities, with the rich growing richer and the poor growing poorer. As we seek to overcome this terrible pandemic, did any of you notice that we as a world are facing a very serious crisis?

By 29 July, in another 49 days, we will have passed 209 days on the 2021 calendar.


What is the significance of this day? 

It marks the date when humanity will use all the biological resources the Earth can renew during an entire year. This means for the rest of 2021, we’re effectively in (ecological) debt to our planet – borrowing resources from future years instead of living within our means.

It’s just like if you have Rs. 100,000 in the bank and spend Rs. 200,000 – that puts you in the red. You’ll have a deficit of Rs. 100,000. If you keep living like that, spending what you don’t have, eventually you’ll be in trouble. It’s not a sustainable way to live.

Each year, the human population grows. We consume more natural resources than the planet can regenerate in a year and emit far more carbon dioxide than our forests and oceans can possibly sequester. Thus, our deficit grows. We fall further and further in the red.

According to the Global Footprint Network, throughout most of our history, humanity has used nature’s resources to build cities and roads, to provide food and create products, and to release carbon dioxide at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But by the early 1970s, that critical threshold had been crossed: Human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce. According to their accounts, humanity’s demand for resources is now equivalent to that of more than 1.7 Earths.

Sadly, we all have only one Earth. With such a human need for 1.7 Earths, can you imagine how much we are abusing this world year after year?

This injustice is not merely towards the Earth; it’s a serious crime committed against our own children and grandchildren.

This day, known as Earth Overshoot Day, fell on 22 August in 2020. It showed a three-week delay from the same in 2019. For the first time in history, this day was delayed by several weeks, which is a good sign. 

The cause is the Covid-19 pandemic. It forced humanity’s activities to slow down abruptly, providing an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the future we yearn for. We must start acting knowing that it is not something we can just fix, wash our hands off, and return to normal. Because it is “normal” that brought us to where we are today. The pandemic has shown that we must rethink our relationship with nature, as humanity’s destruction of natural resources and wild species is implicated in the emergence of many illnesses that jump from animals to humans.

While the average person alone can’t put the brakes on global resource overconsumption, people can take steps in the right direction everyday.

A “debt-free” planet is within reach, if we all can contribute to the process of making it green again.

It includes the governments making strong environmental commitments, establishing regulatory conditions that promote economic creativity, and efficient business responses to environmental demands. It also includes the corporations who have a significant role to play in the next few decades of environmental action, developing and deploying solutions on a global scale to reduce their footprint, cut plastic waste, and make their products more sustainable. And finally, the individuals being conscious about their consumption habits, making their houses environmentally friendly, considering the eco-consequences of the actions they take.

(Avanthi Dissanayake is the Co-Founder of Colombo Closet [CC]. She is also an investment banker with a proven track record of over 18 years. CC is a curated marketplace for Preloved, a visionary towards a greener future)