How Big is My Ecological Footprint? Assessing the Sustainability of Our Lifestyles

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 lifestyle. We can ask ourselves these questions to get a better sense of what these habits are: 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?



What is Your Ecological Footprint?


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.


"Having students calculate their ecological footprint gives them a concrete understanding of their own personal impact on the Earth’s systems and offers a means of assessing the sustainability of their lifestyles."

Environmental and sustainability education (sometimes referred to as Education for Sustainable Development or ESD for short) is widely viewed as an essential part of the solution to building a sustainable future. But as most of us realize, sustainable development is a complex, messy and multi-faceted problem (sometimes termed a complex "wicked" problem to illustrate just how complicated it really is) that requires a good understanding of the scientific and socio-political aspects of sustainability to develop and implement effective solutions on local, regional and global scales.



Engaging Children in Sustainability


So, given the mind-boggling complexity of environmental and sustainability problems, how do we introduce children in a way that slowly eases them in and encourages personal engagement? Is there an effective entry point for students of any age to begin grappling with sustainability issues in their own lives?


"Calculating one’s ecological footprint reinforces the notion that sustainability is a journey and not a destination and that it is participatory, not a spectator sport. It serves as a simple guide to living, working, and playing in ways that don’t cost the Earth."

Well, thankfully there is. Calculating your ecological footprint and carbon emissions just got a whole lot simpler due to online tools and apps designed to do just that. Having students calculate their ecological footprint gives them a concrete understanding of their own personal impact on the Earth’s systems and offers a means of assessing the sustainability of their lifestyles. More than that, engaging students in an ecological footprint analysis elicits curiosity, enthusiasm, and genuine interest in taking action to reduce the demand they place on nature. Students like the fact that the analysis focuses on their own lives, and they understand its clear message: that their choices — and hence they, themselves — can make a difference. Calculating one’s ecological footprint reinforces the notion that sustainability is a journey and not a destination and that it is participatory, not a spectator sport. It serves as a simple guide to living, working, and playing in ways that don’t cost the Earth.



Nowadays a variety of well-built ecological footprint calculators exist, some of which are specifically built for children (rather than more complex adult based footprint calculators). One of the simplest to use is the Zero Footprint Youth Calculator, which breaks lifestyle factors down into five basic categories: transport, food, home, use and waste. Students answer a series of related questions and make commitments to reduce their ecological impacts and carbon emissions based on targets. The results provide a breakdown of personal carbon emissions (tonnes of CO2) vs. the global average, as well as the set reductions you have committed to based on your goals. Additionally, the results show how many Earth's are required to sustain your current lifestyle vs. the global average.


Bringing Sustainability to Life


Importantly, this entry point to sustainability is not designed to name and shame children with high ecological footprints. It's simply a way to bring sustainability to life and direct learning and discussion in a constructive direction.


"Engaging students in an ecological footprint analysis elicits curiosity, enthusiasm, and genuine interest in taking action to reduce the demand they place on nature."


A few year's ago, I facilitated this activity among a class of 10-11 year old children and they were really engrossed in the process of making their own ecological footprint calculations. It turned out that one of my students had an ecological footprint which was leaps and bounds greater than the rest of her class. Essentially, her parents lived and worked in Southeast Asia, had three residences dotted around the world and an extremely high annual flight mileage. Like many of the other students, she'd never really considered that the way she lived could impact upon the environment in so many ways and she was deeply upset. But as we discussed our findings, she began to realize she could do something about it and rather than crying, she began to get excited at the prospect of making real-world change and talking to her parents about living a more sustainable lifestyle.


This is the learning outcome that we are looking for: the conscious empowerment of children to take responsibility for their actions through making greener lifestyle choices in their own family lives.


So try doing some ecological footprint calculations with your children and explore ways to make a difference today!



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