Respecting the Boundaries of Earth Overshoot Day

We have all learned a lot about boundaries during COVID-19. Boundaries like six-foot social distancing are meant to keep you safe. But what are the boundaries that keep humanity safe on our finite planet?

This Saturday, August 22, marks Earth Overshoot Day – the day when the Ecological Footprint — humanity’s demands on natural resources and services — exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that year (“biocapacity”), according to calculations by Global Footprint Network. From now through December 31, we increase the ecological debt which humanity started accumulating in the early 1970s when the world fell in ecological overshoot. One way this debt manifests is through the accumulation of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than natural ecosystems can absorb. This is where ecological boundaries come in.

Overshoot leads to depleting the natural capital and threatening the planet’s ability to support our lifestyle. At the rate we are consuming, we demand as much from nature as if we lived on 1.6 Earths. The Footprint Calculator developed by Global Footprint Network determines the date of your personal Overshoot Day and will tell you how many planets humanity would need if everyone lived like you do. Mine was July 14. Not good.


When we deplete natural reserves, we eventually start pushing up against tipping points that threaten whole systems with collapse like a game of Jenga. And these systems are quite complex – so much so that small disruptions can have disproportionately large effects. You do not have to catch the very last big-eye tuna for their populations to collapse, just as you don’t have to catch every last fish to have the ocean system collapse. The tipping point is that boundary we want to avoid.

Since the 1970s, we have operated in “overshoot mode,” with the annual date of Earth Overshoot Day usually coming earlier each year. Every year, we use up more of the reserves we have. And the more we deplete those reserves, the more we push up against tipping points.

This year features an unexpected shift in the trend – which is important. Earth Overshoot Day 2020 is more than three weeks later than last year, a direct consequence of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world which slowed down resource consumption. While moving the date back is a good thing, it is a product of the pandemic – a global crisis that was imposed upon us. Going forward, we can choose to move the date of Earth Overshoot Day through careful design, so that all people — and wildlife — thrive within the ecological budget of Earth.


Technology has an important role to play in moving the date. To begin with, efforts to create “greener IT” need to continue. This includes looking at both what we use to make our products and how hardware uses energy. Dell is working to accelerate the circular economy and we have an aggressive goal to take back one product for every product sold by 2030, along with shifting to at least 50% recycled- or renewable-content in our products and 100% in our packaging.

Climate impacts are also a big part of the overshoot equation. By driving greater energy efficiency we also help our customers on their path to reducing emissions. To that end, we’ve reduced the energy intensity of our whole product portfolio since 2011 by 69.9%. Recognizing the multiple benefits that habitat restoration and protection of vulnerable forests provide, Dell also offers the Plant a Tree program. Customers can choose during their purchase to donate to plant trees and protect forests via The Conservation Fund. In addition to the climate benefits, these efforts restore habitats and improve the health of the ecosystem.


Meanwhile, virtualization, AI/ML and other technologies help our customers better manage resources throughout operations, including reduced travel, optimizing building controls, managing the electricity grid better to bring more renewable energy sources online  and much more. Because they contribute to lowering the consumption of ecological resources while improving well-being, all of these initiatives are essential to our customers’ long-term success. For example, AeroFarms, a leader in vertical farming, is transforming agricultural production through IoT and data analytics. They are able to produce 390x more greens without the sun and without soil while using 95% less water and no pesticides in their operations than a conventional farm.

Efforts like this can play an important role in driving one-planet prosperity and moving the date of Earth Overshoot Day back in the year Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric even did a study that showed that retrofitting existing buildings worldwide with existing energy-efficiency technologies could shift the date back 21 days.


If you’re ready to do more at a personal level, the Global Footprint Network provides 11 steps you can take to move the date.

At the organizational level, engage with your technology and sustainability teams to see how you can move the date and meet sustainability goals. Look at how you can transform your workplace to reduce commuting via long-term work-from-home policies and practices. See how you could use machine learning to create a digital twin instead of physical prototyping for your next big project.

Thinking about your own place in global systems can be a little overwhelming. Yet, the equation is remarkably simple: investing in one’s own success is about supporting humanity’s prosperity in the long-term, just like choosing a healthy lifestyle optimizes one’s chances of leading a longer and happier life. There are a lot of things you can do as an individual or as a business to help move the date of Earth Overshoot Day. You can start by finding your own Overshoot Day and exploring some of the fantastic initiatives to move the date shared on the crowd-sourced map developed by Global Footprint Network. Then help raise awareness of Earth Overshoot Day and the concept of one-planet prosperity using social media via the #MoveTheDate hashtag, or in a classroom.

About the Author: Stephen Roberts

At the confluence of sustainability, marketing and business strategy stands Stephen Roberts, a 23-year veteran of environmental and public health marketing efforts. Stephen joined Dell Technologies in 2011 and has since helped develop the company’s approach to and marketing of circular economy efforts, ecosystem restoration, and combatting climate change. In addition to managing sustainability efforts associated with Dell’s social impact vision, Progress Made Real, Stephen leads global communications efforts for the Planet Employee Resource Group. When he’s not crafting green stories, you might find him coaching the women’s water polo team at the University of Texas or on a travel adventure with his wife and son.