Footprint Network Blog - Personal Footprint
If I can grow enough potatoes, I won’t starve. But how large an area do I need to plant?
It’s a simple question in a complex and desperate situation. In the movie The Martian, an astronaut on a Mars mission is thought to have been killed in an accident and left on the red planet during an emergency evacuation by the rest of the crew. Mark Watney, the unlucky astronaut played by actor Matt Damon, must figure out how to survive. With four years to go before the next scheduled mission will arrive on Mars, but only enough food to last for one, a key part of survival will be avoiding starvation.
In his video log, Watney surmises, “So, I’ve got to figure out a way to grow three years’ worth of food here—on a planet where nothing grows. Luckily, I am a botanist. Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”
In his quest for food, Watney discovers potatoes that were set aside for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the only food that he can attempt to grow to supplement the remaining food rations. He carefully calculates how much area he needs to grow potatoes and ends up with 126 square meters of Martian cropland.
Since potatoes are renewable resources, Watney calculates that harvesting the larger potatoes and re-planting the smaller ones will provide 400 potato plants, enough calories to keep him going until he can be rescued.
Starting to sound familiar? It sure does to us at Global Footprint Network!
When Watney was calculating the rate at which he needed to consume potatoes, he was measuring his personal Ecological Footprint, or in other words, his demand for ecological resources. When he calculated that he would need 126 square meters to grow 400 potatoes, he was calculating the biologically productive area, or biocapacity, needed to meet this demand.
Spoiler alert: if you don’t want more of the movie revealed, we recommend you stop reading here.
Of course, the movie wouldn’t be a Hollywood blockbuster if there wasn’t another disaster. An explosion due to equipment malfunction breaches the pressurized barrier surrounding Watney’s precious potato plants. The sudden drop of pressure ruins Watney’s water supply, and the subzero temperatures kill any bacteria in the soil, shattering his opportunities to re-grow potatoes. Water, soil quality and temperature are among the critical factors that impact biocapacity, but are not directly measured by Ecological Footprint accounting.
It’s a vivid demonstration of how outside forces beyond an individual or population’s control can affect the water supply and then biocapacity. For Watney it was an explosion. For places like California, it’s a drought ultimately forcing farmers to leave millions of acres of land fallow.
In the movie, we also see how Watney’s Footprint almost exceeds biocapacity: He has to tear apart the mission’s artificial habitat to make enough space for the cropland needed to sustain him. On Earth, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has exceeded the planet’s biocapacity. This is largely because on Earth, the Ecological Footprint goes beyond measuring our demand for food. It adds up all the competing demands on our planet’s surface areas, including demand for land for housing and other infrastructure; demand for timber products provided by forests; and demand for carbon sequestration, also provided by forests.
Even though this dramatic story took place on Mars, the situation feels close to home as we face similar challenges of living within our ecological limits here on Earth.
This is the third post in a series titled “Making A Difference” where we highlight a different voice each week. See our full list here.
Two years ago, I decided against building my dream home after falling in love with the Ecological Footprint. A quest for clearly measuring sustainability led me to this unique, data-based approach to calculate humanity’s impact on the planet, including my family’s.
In my case, clever designs, expensive “green” materials, and cutting-edge energy-efficient technologies were not enough. None of this would enable my wife and family to move from our apartment in Switzerland into the large home we dreamed of…without growing our Ecological Footprint on the planet. This unexpected conclusion inspired me to make more changes in my life.
One of those changes was joining the Board of Directors at Global Footprint Network last year to lend my support as an entrepreneur to a cause I care about deeply.
This is a series of blog posts titled "Making A Difference" where we highlight a different voice each week.
Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and think, "What am I going to face today? What kind of issue will it be: fish kill, pollution from industry, or destruction from a typhoon?"
As the general manager of the Laguna Lake Development Authority, I am responsible for managing and protecting the environment one of the most densely populated areas on earth, the home of 25 million people, in the heart of the Philippines. Read Neurus' story.
Two years ago I decided against building my dream home after falling in love with the Ecological Footprint. A question for clearly measuring sustainability led me to this unique data-based approach to calculate humanity's impact on the planet, including my family's. Read Daniel's story.
Since I was a child growing up in southern Iran, years of severe drought have threatened the vitality of the rich farmland in my native Fars province, Iran’s traditional bread basket. Today, as a PhD student in agricultural development at Shiraz University in Iran, I am exploring innovative ways to help make agriculture sustainable in Iran, especially in the Fars province. Read Mahsa's story.
I had two passions as a kid: nature and technology. After starting as an electrical engineering and computer science undergraduate at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), I realized my path lay elsewhere. Read David's story.
In 2015 Earth Overshoot Day raised global public awareness of natural resource constraints to new heights. More than 30 organizations joined our efforts to spread the word about natural resource constraints on the new website overshootday.org, helping raise Earth Overshoot Day-related page views by 18 percent over last year.
This year’s message on the drastic impact of carbon on the Ecological Footprint afforded the campaign its biggest U.S. mainstream media coverage to date. It made its way into National Geographic, Newsweek, TIME and Discovery News, among others. For the first time ever, USA Today devoted its front cover’s daily snapshot to Earth Overshoot Day, while The Washington Post finally gave the campaign a nod. Rush Limbaugh couldn’t resist giving his signature outraged opinion in a long rant targeted at eco-conscious Millennials.
In India, leading daily The Hindu published a joint op-ed of Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, and Dr. Balakrishna Pisupati, the former Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
Our vision is that all people of the Earth live well and within the means of nature. We are delighted when this vision is shared by others around the world, and honored when we meet individuals equally passionate about sustainability. Last month, we had the pleasure to meet Freddy Ehlers, minister of the Buen Vivir program in Ecuador. "Buen vivir" translates roughly to good living in English. The program promotes finding a meaning to life that makes living it worthwhile, inspired by service to others and respect toward all beings in nature.
Over the course of his 40-year career, Freddy has worked as a journalist, documentary film producer, Andean community secretary general and Ecuadorian minister of tourism. He studied law at the Universidad Central del Ecuador, pursued graduate studies in political science at Davidson College in the United States and received media training at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre in Holland.
We asked Freddy a few questions about his work at the Ministry of Buen Vivir.
Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, was in Florence, Italy, this week to receive the IAIA Global Environment Award for developing the Ecological Footprint. “The Global Environment Award is presented annually to a leading individual or institution that has made a substantial contribution to the practice of environmental assessment, management or policy at a global scale,” according to the International Association for Impact Assessment. This global network believes, in its own words, that “the assessment of the environmental, social, economic, cultural, and health implications for proposals is a critical contribution to sound decision-making processes, and to equitable and sustainable development.” IAIA is recognizing the Ecological Footprint for efficiently “translating the complexity of humanity’s impact on the environment into a compelling, understandable and actionable form.”
Previous recipients of the award include:
2014 John Ruggie, USA
2013 International Finance Corporation, USA
2012 Int’l Network for Enviro Compliance & Enforcement, USA
2011 Not awarded
2010 Nicholas Stern, UK
2009 The Carter Center’s River Blindness Program, USA
2008 Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Canada
2007 Lawrence E. Susskind, USA
2006 Wangari Maathai, Kenya
2005 James Gustave Speth, USA
2004 Margot Wallstrom, Sweden
2003 Mostafa Kamal Tolba, Egypt
2002 Jan Pronk, The Netherlands
2001 Maurice Strong, Canada
The text from Wackernagel’s acceptance speech is below:
Earth Day’s 45th anniversary is being celebrated today around the world. On this day—less than one-third into the calendar year—humanity already has used about half of all renewable natural resources and services that the planet can generate this year, according to Global Footprint Network’s data. Despite this sobering fact, let’s not lose sight of the many signs that a perfect storm is brewing for 2015 to be the most exciting year to date for sustainability.
All eyes are on the Paris Climate Summit, a much-anticipated event which is already boasting the tag line "For a universal climate agreement." Some 23 years after the first Rio Summit and 18 years after the historic Kyoto Protocol was signed, the nations of the world are closer than ever before to making a binding commitment to act on climate change. If the negotiations are successful, that commitment would entail a clear, shared goal (maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range,) detailed action plans and a timeline.
"I’ve always been driven by opportunities where analysis and knowledge generation can impact policies."
Derek joined Global Footprint Network this month to lead analytics on resource accounting and the implications for policy and sustainability solutions. An economist with a Ph.D. from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, he brings more than 20 years of experience in undertaking research that informs and drives decision makers.
Prior to joining Global Footprint Network, Derek was Executive Director of the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. Before that, Derek served as a core member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, where he managed the integrated modeling assessment in UNEP’s 2011 flagship report, "Towards a Green Economy." He also has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). See his full bio here.
In the following Q&A, Derek talks to us about his professional journey, the importance of behavior change in achieving sustainability, the first project for the United Nations that he is leading on our team.
If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage, we would be remarkably close to living within the budget of our planet’s ecological resources. Researcher Vince Carragher’s bottom-up Ecological Footprint accounting methodology helps residents stay on track.
Seven years after construction started in the middle of Ireland, Cloughjordan Ecovillage counts 54 homes. Its solar- and wood-powered community heating system is up and running, as are the wood-oven bakery and the eco-hostel for visitors. The organic, bio-dynamic community farm, one of the largest community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes in Ireland, caters to over 60 families; it can serve 80 when operating at full capacity.
Cloughjordan Ecovillage residents have an average Ecological Footprint per capita of only 2 global hectares (gha), according to the first Ecological Footprint survey of residents that was carried out last spring and presented to the community in November. By way of comparison, Global Footprint Network estimates that the average amount of biocapacity that is available per person on the planet is 1.7 gha.
The survey was conducted by Vincent Carragher, energy manager and research coordinator at Tipperary Energy Agency and an expert on local scale material and resource flow analysis and decarbonisation. His bottom-up approach, which he developed during his doctorate research on Ballina, an Irish community of 700 households, focuses on data collected directly from each household. It is based on the original Ecological Footprint accounting methodology developed by Mathis Wackernagel, now president of Global Footprint Network, and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, and other subsequent works.
As we are greeting the New Year, we want to take a moment to pause, thank our generous supporters and celebrate what we accomplished over the past 12 months. Here are the highlights.
A major milestone for us was the launch, last June in London, of Phase II of ERISC with our partners in the finance industry. Environmental Risk Integration in Sovereign Credit, a research project that seeks to quantify how environmental risk can impact the balance sheet of nations, is a joint program with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative. We are grateful to participating institutions Caisse des Dépôts, the European Investment Bank, First State Investments, HSBC, Kempen Capital Management, KfW and Standard & Poor’s, who embarked on that journey with us. We are looking forward to announcing first research results and findings in 2015.