Human activities consume resources and produce waste. As our populations grow and global consumption increases, it is essential that we measure nature’s capacity to meet these demands on our planet. The Ecological Footprint has emerged as one of the world’s leading measures of human demand on nature. It allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American, we would need 5 planets. Ecological Footprint Accounting thus addresses whether the planet is large enough to keep up with the demands of humanity.
How the Ecological Footprint Works
The Ecological Footprint measures the supply of and demand on nature. On the supply side biocapacity represents the planet’s biologically productive land areas including our forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries. These areas, especially if left unharvested, can also absorb much of the waste we generate, especially our carbon emissions.
Biocapacity can then be compared with humanity’s demand on nature: our Ecological Footprint. The Ecological Footprint represents the productive area required to provide the renewable resources humanity is using and to absorb its waste. The productive area currently occupied by human infrastructure is also included in this calculation, since built-up land is not available for resource regeneration.
Our current global situation: Since the 1970s, humanity has been in ecological overshoot with annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year.
It now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
We maintain this overshoot by liquidating the Earth’s resources. Overshoot is a vastly underestimated threat to human well-being and the health of the planet, and one that is not adequately addressed.
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.
Conceived in 1990 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, the Ecological Footprint launched the broader Footprint movement, including the carbon Footprint, and is now widely used by scientists, businesses, governments, individuals and institutions working to monitor ecological resource use and advance sustainable development.