Our ecological footprint

Here’s a personal challenge: How do you measure up in terms of sustainability?

In 1996, a slim book based on a UBC doctoral dissertation and published by a little-known press on Gabriola Island revolutionized how we think about our relationship to the planet. Our Ecological Footprint, the title of the book and key concept created by its authors (Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees), provides ways to measure the “load” humans impose on the natural environment in terms of how much land and water we use and waste we generate in relation to the amount of land and water we actually have.

Wackernagel & Rees made it possible, for the first time, to calculate both precisely and graphically our human-environment impact over time and across different populations. The results were startling.

As reported by the Global Footprint Network which is headed by Wackernagel, we humans went into global “ecological overshoot” in about 1980, at which time our demand on nature exceeded the planet’s capacity to provide. How is that possible? How can demand exceed supply? The answer, of course, is that it can’t.

If we want to achieve sustainability, we need to focus on two things: both our own lifestyle as well as influencing our governments. Global Footprint Network

For three decades, we have been robbing future generations to support our current lifestyle. As the Global Footprint Network states, “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.4 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year.” Moreover, if current trends continue, we will need the equivalent of 2 Earths well before the middle of this century. At some point, this behaviour will obviously become impossible – for us!

Not only is human demand on the Earth’s bio-capacity increasing over time, it is also distributed very unevenly around the globe. For instance, the United States has the highest per person Ecological Footprint (if we all lived like Americans, we would need 5 planets to support us!), while Afghanistan and sub-Saharan African countries have the lowest. Canada has the 4th highest footprint; if everyone on earth lived like we do, we would need 4.3 Earths.

As these figures indicate, our Ecological Footprint is not calculated solely by the size of a particular population, but also by its lifestyle. “By measuring the Footprint of a population-an individual, city, business, nation, or all of humanity – we can assess our pressure on the planet, which helps us manage our ecological assets more wisely and take personal and collective action in support of a world where humanity lives within the Earth’s bounds.”

Take the quiz to calculate your own personal footprint at Global Footprint Network. Only by defining clearly your resource consumption can you think of ways to reduce it.

As you take the quiz, you will learn that your footprint reflects not only your own personal choices and actions, but also the various public services your community offers (public transport and so on). As the Global Footprint Network concludes, “This is why, if we want to achieve sustainability, we need to focus on two things: both our own lifestyle as well as influencing our governments.”

Alan Hedley is a retired University of Victoria Sociology Professor. He’s currently searching for ways to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable human existence on planet Earth – and blogging about his journey.

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