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What is an ecological footprint?

a green forest picture

The morning alarm rings. You take a hot shower, brew up a cup of coffee, read a bit from the morning newspaper and hop in the car to get to work on time.

Have you ever stopped to consider the total environmental impact involved in each of these daily habits?

The ecological footprint is one technique to answer the question of how our lifestyle effects the planet.

The ecological footprint (EF) was developed at the University of British Columbia by Dr. William Rees and Dr. MathisWackernagel. It estimates how much of Earth's productive land and sea is used to produce the food, materials and energy that we consume and to assimilate our wastes. The EF looks behind the scenes to see what it takes to make an alarm clock, a cup of coffee, clothes, a home or to operate an automobile. This gets complicated in our global economy where the products originate from around the world.

As an example let’s take a deeper look at that morning cup of coffee. Land is needed to grow the coffee beans, for the processing and distributing operations, to house corporate management and advertisers as well as the downtown store. Additional forest land is needed to absorb the CO2 resulting from all the energy burned harvesting, processing and shipping the coffee. Somewhere on the planet land was mined to make the metal for the machinery used in each step of the process and for the chemicals used in fertilizers and pesticides.

Given that 6.4 billion humans are sharing all the biologically productive land on this earth, each person has 4.5 acres as their personal planetoid. You can think of this 4.5 acres as your virtual homestead, spread around the world to grow your food, produce all your material needs, including energy, and to absorb all your wastes. If the population doubles over the next 30 years, each will be left with a 2.25 acre personal planetoid. Leaving sufficient habitat for the 25 million other species on Earth brings this area down to one acre now and half an acre in 30 years.

  • How much Earth is there?
    126 billion acres
  • Amount of Earth covered by low bio-productive oceans, deserts, ice caps, and human settlement?
    97 billion acres
  • How much bio-productive land and sea exists?
    29 billion acres
  • Current human population?
    6.4 billion
  • How much exists per person today?
    4.5 acres
  • How much is available per person if we leave 75% wild for the 25 million other species on Earth?
    1 acre
  • How much do humans on average use globally?
    5.8 acres

Currently, Earth is ecologically filled with humans. We overshoot Earth's bio-capacity by over 20 %!

It is only since the industrial revolution that resource use and consumption has skyrocketed. The US was built on foundations of frugality, yet today, North Americans are the world's greatest consumers. If the world's people consumed as North Americans, we would need five Earths! The link between consumer habits and global warming, war, species extinction, and social injustice are often lost amidst fast paced advertising and a throw-away consciousness.

ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINTS AROUND THE WORLD

  • United States - 24 acres
  • Canada - 22 acres
  • United Kingdom - 13 acres
  • Russian Federation - 11 acres
  • Mexico - 6 acres
  • World Average - 5.6 acres
  • Personal Planetoid - 4.5 acres
  • China - 4 acres
  • GLP - 3.2 acres (summer) and 4 acres (winter)
  • Iraq – 3 acres
  • India - 2 acres
  • Bangladesh - 1 acre
  • Inter-species equity (75 percent wild) - 1 acre
  • Afghanistan – 0.75 acres

The Earth is ecologically filled, meaning that everything we use beyond one acre is detracting from what another person or species has to nourish their lifestyle.

The power of ecological footprinting is that it helps us step into the role of a global citizen coexisting with a bio diverse planet. We can use it to design a lifestyle, a business, or an institution that is in alignment with our personal or collective value system. The beauty of footprinting is that if 100 people designed a lifestyle that was within their personal planetoid, we would see 100 unique solutions. Footprinting inspires our creativity and helps us share Earth with all life.

What's your ecological footprint? - Global Footprint Network