Ecological Footprints: An Access Point to Sustainability

Ecological Footprints: An Access Point to Sustainability

Updated: Oct 8, 2019


Each of us consumes some of the Earth’s products and services every day. How much we take depends on the ways in which we satisfy our needs and wants — the many habits that together create our lifestyles.


We can get a better sense of what these habits are by asking questions akin to the following: How much water do I use on a typical day? What do I eat and how much do I eat? How much food do I waste? How do I transport myself and how far do I go? How much clothing and footwear do I have and how often do I replace it? What and how much stuff do I buy? How much energy and materials are required to keep me dry and warm/cool? How much trash do I produce? How much land and energy is used for my recreational activities?


The Ecological Footprint: An Access Point to Sustainability


Our answers to these questions reflect the demand that each of us places on nature. In the 1990s, sustainability gurus Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees coined the term ecological footprint to refer to the load or demand that we place on the Earth’s resources. An ecological footprint is a measure of how much of the Earth’s biologically productive land and water is needed to produce our food, material goods, and energy, and to absorb our waste.



"Ecological footprint analyses help to elicit curiosity, enthusiasm, and genuine interest in taking action to reduce the demand each of us places on nature."

The concept that we all have the ecological footprint serves as an effective way to introduce children to environmental and sustainability issues in the context of their own lives. Calculating your ecological footprint is quite simple to do, and it serves as an ideal entry point for learning. By bringing the concept of sustainability to life on an individual scale, it also helps learners to connect their choices as consumers to the environmental impacts.


Sustainability: A Complex, Messy Problem


Solving sustainability problems in the real-world is a complex, messy and multi-faceted challenge (sometimes termed a complex “wicked” problem to illustrate just how complicated it is). As a consequence, there’s a risk of putting young people off engaging in sustainability issues precisely because of the complexity involved.


Ecological footprint analyses help to elicit curiosity, enthusiasm, and genuine interest in taking action to reduce the demand each of us places on nature. In addition, by opening up a gateway to exploring sustainability in greater depth, the concept of the ecological footprint highlights the important point that our choices – and hence we, ourselves – can make a difference.


Calculating Your Ecological Footprint


A variety of ecological footprint calculators exist. One of the most reliable and easy-to-use analysis tools is by the Global Footprint Network. This footprint calculator helps you to estimate how many planets we would need if everybody lives like you and the date of your personal Overshoot Day. In addition, it calculates your ecological footprint (in global hectares) and your carbon footprint (in tonnes of CO2 per year). Based on your current lifestyle, it also helps you identify possible ways you could reduce your environmental impact on the planet.


"Calculating your ecological footprint is quite simple to do, and it serves as an ideal entry point for learning. By bringing the concept of sustainability to life on an individual scale, it also helps learners to connect their choices as consumers to the environmental impacts."

Vitally, ecological footprint calculators are not designed to shame people into changing their lifestyles. Instead, they bring the topic of sustainability to life through personal experience and help learners identify risks and opportunities for change. Facilitating a lesson on ecological footprints with children is a powerful learning tool and entry point to sustainability as a whole. But don’t forget: the key is to educate and not advocate for change. The skill of an effective educator is to gently lead students through the learning process and enable them to draw their own conclusions.


A Sustainable Future: Imagining Desired Outcomes


If the ecological footprint tells us something about the current situation – helping us to assess the scale of impacts today – the next step in the journey is for students to envisage a desired outcome. It is perhaps fair to assume that most people would prefer to live in a more sustainable society – one where people support each other and where resources are managed sustainably and distributed equitably.


Getting students to focus on “what we want” by creating a vision of desirable futures and charting a path (individually or collectively) to get there is a powerful learning exercise in sustainability education. There are many methods and techniques for eliciting desired futures, including predictive modeling and scenario building.



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