Ecological Footprint Essay

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“Ecological Footprint” (E F) refers to a system of measurement developed for estimating human appropriation of ecological resources relative to biologically productive (bioproductive) land area. EFs can show how much land is needed to sustainably support a human population, nation, or a specific component of society, such as a commodity (e.g., soybeans), transportation system (e.g., auto transit), or lifestyle (i.e., a consumption pattern). The utility of footprint analysis (FA) is best understood by considering the ecology of a modern city. Urban inhabitants are concentrated within city bounds but they rely on the importation of resources and exportation of wastes to survive.

Therefore, the land area necessary to produce resources and absorb wastes far exceeds the actual geographic boundaries of the city (or nation)-in wealthy nations ecological flows may be distributed across the planet. FA provides a framework for tracking these resource and waste flows and converting them into a common metric-land area (hectares) per capita-by making use of widely available economic statistics.

The calculation of an EF is based on two key assumptions. First, it is possible to reasonably track most human resource consumption and waste generation, and translate these flows into bioproductive land areas. Second, it is possible to standardize varying land areas by weighting each according to their “potential biomass productivity.” The latter refers to production potential that is of economic interest to society, not the diverse assemblage of other organisms necessary for human survival, or biodiversity. Biodiversity is included in national and global analyses but there is much debate over how much land must be set aside. (Estimates range from 8 to 75 percent; in practice, the conservative World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED] estimate of 12 percent of bioproductive land is simply added to the footprint total for the given social unit.) EFs omit resource uses for which conversions into bioproductive land are difficult, such as the impact of local fresh water use, as well as any impact that systematically reduces the ability of ecosystems to regenerate, such as the release of nonassimilable and/or bioaccumulating chemicals (e.g., uranium, polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], and mercury).

Standardization Measures

The novelty of FA is in standardizing resource and waste flows in terms of bioproductive land area, instead of creating arbitrary indices or lumping together ecological and social factors. This requires analysts to distinguish between the quality of land types depending on their level of productivity. For instance, arable land is the most productive and is used for staple crops, such as wheat and corn. Pasture land is unable to support staple crops and used primarily for grazing. While pasture also produces food for human consumption, the biochemical conversion from plants to meat represents significant energy loss (a factor of 10).

Forest land represents tree farms or forests yielding timber. Built or degraded land is productive land lost to roads, buildings, and other structures. Built land is considered formerly productive because human settlement patterns indicate that arable land is ruined to accommodate infrastructure. Other types of land included are productive sea space, energy land, and biodiversity land. When calculating a footprint, resource and waste flows are first converted into one of the above land areas (in hectares) and then scaled by multiplying by an equivalence factor (EQ), also in hectares. EQs express differences in land productivity compared to world average productivity (e.g., in 1999 arable land had an EQ of 2.1 and pasture land 0.5). World average productivity, and consequently the productivity of each above land type, is recomputed each year to account for reductions in resource stocks, such as desertification, fishery collapse, urbanization, and so on.

Taking the example of a typical North American barbecue meal-steak, potatoes, and paper cups and plates-we can see how an EF is calculated. The steak and potatoes require pasture land for grazing, arable land to grow the potatoes, energy for fertilizer, transportation, processing, storage, and cooking, and built land for roads and buildings to transport and store the food. The paper products require forest land for production and have similar energy requirements except that the paper must either be disposed of or recycled, requiring more energy and/or land to store the waste. After each production and waste flow of the meal is converted into the appropriate land type and multiplied by the associated EQ, all of the components are summed. This gives the total EF for the meal, which might then be compared to the world average footprint for a typical meal.

Clearly, EFs can get extremely complicated, especially when doing a component-based calculation, as in the latter example. William Rees, who coined the phrase ecological footprint, notes the pedagogical utility of component-based analysis. Rees’s former student and collaborator, Mathis Wackernagel, emphasizes that the more robust compound calculation, which takes the nation-state as its unit of analysis, achieves the central purpose of the tool: “providing a big picture analysis to put the various competing human uses of the biosphere in each other’s context.” While national EFs may seem even more complicated, economic data for all countries is readily available through the United Nations, and as Wackernagel and Rees note, the inclusion of every possible impact is unnecessary: “there is virtue in accurate simplicity,” especially considering the complexity of ecosystem functions. Wackernagel’s team has calculated national EFs for most countries back to 1960. This longitudinal analysis reveals that, excluding a conservative set aside for biodiversity, humanity’s ecological demand exceeded the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980 (1970 with a biodiversity allocation). By 1999, humanity exceeded earth’s capacity by 20 percent. This overshoot-a concept William Catton popularized and that served as an inspiration for the development of EFs-is possible because EF calculations acknowledge that populations can indeed grow beyond their carrying capacity, but they will eventually feel the effects of critical resource loss.

Wackernagel and Rees theorized EFs as a direct intervention into debates over sustainability, and particularly as a criticism of traditional economic modeling and the use of monetary equivalents for assessing sustainability (i.e., “pricing” or privatizing nature as a solution). FA implies that traditional economic models do not adequately account for biophysical limits, efficient resource use, ecologically realistic pricing, or intraand inter-generational equity. By distinguishing human and environmental welfare, EFs provide much-needed conceptual clarity for social researchers. Indeed, the use of EFs within the social sciences is widespread and stimulating vigorous debate over the future of social organization.


  1. William R. Catton Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (University of Illinois Press, 1980);
  2. Nicky Chambers, Craig Simmons, and Mathis Wackernagel, Sharing Natures Interest: Ecological Footprints as an Indicator of Sustainability (Earthscan, 2000);
  3. Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (New Society Publishers, 1996);
  4. Wackernagel et al., “National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept,” Ecological Economics (v.29/3, 1999);
  5. Wackernagel et , “Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy,” PNAS (v.99/14, 2002).

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