Footprint Network Blog

As Rational Optimists, We Believe We Can Overcome Ecological Overshoot

Mathis Wackernagel, President, Global Footprint Network - 04/28/2014 01:15 PM

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, asserts in his April 26, 2014 Wall Street Journal opinion piece that human ingenuity has broken through resource barriers over and over again.

The reality is that sometimes innovation has overcome ecological limits (such as photovoltaics, fertilizers, LED lamps and glass fiber replacing copper) and sometimes it has not (such as ecological collapse in Mayan civilization, Easter Island and Haiti). Technology can enable higher resource dependence (as it has with airplanes) or reduce overall demand (as it has with recycling factories). The question is which of the two is gaining the upper hand.

That’s why Global Footprint Network provides ecological resource accounting to document human demand against the planet’s regenerative capacity. Both demand and regeneration change annually. We do not assume fixed ecological limits, contrary to Ridley’s claim.

Our accounting builds on simple principles. Human demand competes for biologically productive surfaces. Therefore human demand can be added up and compared against the productive surfaces available.

We encourage others to test whether our numbers hold up to scrutiny. More than 10 countries and international agencies have reviewed the National Footprint Accounts. Their reports are available on our website.

Global Footprint Network is not proposing that humanity has to fail. On the contrary. We do our work because we believe that humanity can live within nature’s budget. But just as with money, overspending is easy without accounting. Bankruptcy is an option both financially and ecologically. We offer ecological resource accounting tools to make ecological bankruptcy less likely. And just like financial management, resource management does not happen on its own. It requires accurate accounting that can inform prudent choices.

As rational optimists, we believe we can overcome ecological overshoot.

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