If you have student loans, credit card bills or medical debt--I’m sorry to hear. I wish you didn’t. But you can pay it off or find some other way to deal with it, and the world will keep spinning.

Ecological debt can be “paid back,” too. But not in the same way. It goes beyond one person’s troubles and has far more punishing consequences.

What is ecological debt, anyway?

Think of it like this:

The Earth can regenerate its resources only so fast: a tree can grow so fast, a fish population can repopulate so fast and rivers can regain their water supply so fast.

Every year, there is a limit beyond which the planet can’t regenerate to stable levels. This measurement considers carbon emissions, cropland, fish stocks, the use of forests and timber and other resources.

If this limit is surpassed in a given year, humanity goes into ecological debt.

If humanity wanted to “repay” this debt, then it would have to reduce consumption the next year by whatever amount it exceeded this year. So (for simplicity’s sake), if humanity cut down 20 trees too many one year, it would have to cut down 40 fewer trees the next.

But that’s not happening.

In fact, each year, humanity goes deeper and deeper into ecological debt. The bill gets taller and the chance for repayment gets slimmer.

Forests, oceans, marshes and other ecosystems are all being depleted.

This year, humanity went into debt on August 13th, otherwise known as “Overshoot Day.” 12 months of resources were gobbled up in a little more than 8 months, 6 days earlier than last year, according to the Global Footprint Network.

Pop quiz: Which countries do you think are most responsible for this?

That’s an easy one: the US and China. These two countries account for about half of the world’s carbon pollution. And as the two biggest economies in the world, they consume massively across all categories.

By 2020, humanity is on pace to consume 2 planet's worth of resources each year.

This unsustainable consumption doesn’t have to take place. If countries around the world adopt smart environmental policies that cover pollution, deforestation, marine exploitation and more, then our collective debt would come down.

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

Calling on politicians to make strong environmental commitments, buying products only from companies with progressive ethical codes, making your house environmentally friendly and considering the eco-consequences of your actions can all help.

A “debt-free” planet is within reach if humanity makes the effort.


Defend the Planet

Humanity consumes 1.6 Earths each year

By Joe McCarthy