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The term has been used since 1992 by some environmental organizations from the Global south. The first one to use this term was the Instituto de Ecologia Politica from Chile. J.M. Borrero, from Colombia, a lawyer, wrote a book on the ecological debt in 1994. This referred to the environmental liabilities of Northern countries for the excessive per capita production of greenhouse gases, historically and at present. Campaigns on the Ecological Debt were launched since 1997 by Accion Ecologica of Ecuador and Friends of the Earth.
Ecofeminist scholar Ariel Salleh explains how the capitalist processes at work in the global North exploit nature and people simultaneously, ultimately sustaining a large ecological debt in her article, "Ecological Debt: Embodied Debt". At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, politicians and corporate leaders from the global North introduced the supposed solution for the foreign debt crisis in the global South. They proposed 'debt for nature swaps', which essentially means that those countries that possess abundant biodiversity and environmental resources would give them up to the global North in return for the World Bank reducing their debt.
Feminist environmentalists, indigenous activists, and peasants from the global South, primarily in Ecuador, exposed how the global North is much more indebted to the global South. Salleh justifies this by explaining how the 500-year-long colonialisation process involving the extraction of resources has caused immense damage and destruction to the ecosystem of the global South. In fact, scientists at the US National Academy for Sciences state that in the time period of 1961–2000, analyzing the cost of greenhouse gas emissions created by the rich (the global North) alone, it has become apparent that the rich have imposed climate changes on the poor that greatly outweigh the poor's foreign debt. All of this environmental degradation amounts to ecological debt, seizing the people's livelihood resources in the global South.
The ecological debt manifested in the destruction of the environment and associated climate change the North has created is made possible through the process of modernization and capitalism. There is a disassociation between the wealthy capitalists in the North and the environment. Men in particular through industrialization have viewed themselves as separate from nature, and further, they view nature as a tool to profit from, and continually use and abuse without consequences. The notion of humans being embedded in the ecosystem that they live in is crucial to the discipline of political ecology. In political ecology, which reconnects nature and the economy, ecological debt is crucial because it recognizes that colonialisation has not only resulted in a loss of culture, way of life, and language for Indigenous peoples, but it has shaped the world economy into one that monetizes and commodifies the environment. For example, when the colonialisation of South America occurred over 500 years ago, Western Europeans[who?] brought with them their eurocentric values, seeing themselves as better than and therefore entitled to the indigenous people's knowledge and the land they lived on. In a perceived post colonial world, large corporations and Western governments tend to present solutions to global warming by commodifying nature and hoping to make a profit. This better-than-thou attitude has created the conditions for global warming to occur, making the North’s ecological footprint soar, while also constructing an ecological debt so large as to completely rid the entire global South of their financial debt.
Academic work on calculations of the Ecological Debt came later. A remarkable article with the title "The debt of nations and the distribution of ecological impacts from human activities" was published in 2008.
Studies were also produced at regional level, for instance for Orissa, India.
Some government officials from developing countries have argued—at meetings on climate change—that the principle of shared responsibility demands that rich nations go beyond donations or adaptation credits and make reparations that recognize an ecological debt for excessive emissions over several decades. The top US ambassador to the COP in Copenhagen in December 2009, Todd Stern, flatly rejected arguments by diplomats from poor lands that the United States owed such a debt.
Ecological debt has been used to describe the consumption of resources from within an ecosystem that exceeds the system's regenerative capacity. This is seen in particular in non-renewable resources wherein consumption outstrips production. In a general sense, it can be used to refer to the overall depletion of global resources beyond the Earth's ability to regenerate them. The concept in this sense is based on the bio-physical carrying capacity of an ecosystem; through measuring ecological footprints human society can determine the rate at which it is depleting natural resources. Ultimately, the imperative of sustainability requires human society to live within the means of the ecological system to support life over the long term. Ecological debt is a feature of unsustainable economic systems.
- Ecological debt: the health of the planet and the wealth of nations, Andrew Simms, Pluto books, 2005
- J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks (2009). "Ecologically Unequal Exchange, Ecological Debt, and Climate Justice: The History and Implications of Three Related Ideas for a New Social Movement". International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 50 (3–4): 381–408. doi:10.1177/0020715209105147..
- Towards a Level Playing Field, Repaying Ecological Debt, or Making Environmental Space: Three Stories about International Environmental Cooperation, Osgoode Hall Law Journal,2005, VOL 43; NUMB 1/2, pages 137-170
- Elaboration of the concept of ecological debt, Centre for Sustainable Development, Ghent University, 2004
- Credit Where it's Due: The Ecological Debt Education Project, Friends of the Earth Scotland, 2003
- Who owes who?: Climate change, debt, equity and survival, Christian Aid, 1999
- North-South Relations and the Ecological Debt: Asserting a Counter-Hegemonic Discourse, Critical Sociology, 2009, VOL 35(2); pages 225-252
- M.L.Robleto and W. Marcelo, Deuda Ecologica, IEP, Santiago de Chile, 1992
- J.M.Borrero, La Deuda Ecologica, FIPMA, Cali 1994
- Salleh, A. (2009). Ecological debt: embodied debt. Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice. London: Pluto Press.
- U. Thara Srinivasan; et al. (2008). "The debt of nations and the distribution of ecological impacts from human activities". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (5): 1768–1773. PMC . PMID 18212119. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709562104.
- Seager, J. (2009). The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World (4th ed.). New York, NY: Penguin.
- S. Khatua and W. Stanley, "Ecological Debt: a case study from Orissa, India" (2006) 
- A.C.Reukin & T. Zeller, New York Times, 9 Dec. 2009
- Andrew Simms. Ecological Debt. (London: Pluto Press, 2009) p.200.
- Larkin, Amy (2013). Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy ISBN 9781137278555