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The Ecological Footprint
Accounting for Sustainability
Human demand on the biosphere is increasing and we need to take steps to change things while there's still time


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With global ecosystems degrading at an ever increasing rate, calls for sustainable development have become more urgent. Managing for sustainability will be impossible, however, without tools that allow us to account for our demand on, and supply of, ecological resources.

The Ecological Footprint
is an accounting tool that makes sustainability measurable by comparing human demand on the biosphere to the biosphere’s ability to renew itself.  At the global level, Footprint analysis finds that human society is in a state of overshoot, with demands on ecosystems exceeding supply by over 20 percent in 2002.  The picture becomes more varied at the level of nations. Approximately 4.5 global acres of biologically productive land are available for each person worldwide.

Currently, the Ecological Footprint ranges from 26 global acres per person to less than 1 global acre per person. Human livelihood and well-being will always depend closely on the health and functioning of the natural world.  No society would be able to function without the support of healthy forests, clean waters, fertile soils, and other types of ecological capital that provide resources for our use and absorb the wastes that we generate.  Despite these close ties, the link between a healthy environment and a thriving society is often overlooked, and signs of environmental overuse and degradation are all around us.  Collapsing fisheries, loss of forest cover, and continued accumulation of wastes and pollutants are just a few noticeable examples.  In a world of increasing standards of living and growing populations, the challenge for the 21st century will be answering the question: how can we live well within the means of one planet?

To even begin to answer this question, we need to be able to take stock of what our planet can provide, and how much of it we use.  To do this, we need tools that allow us to track flows of ecological goods and services through ecosystems and the human economy, just as we currently track financial flows through markets.  One such accounting tool is the Ecological Footprint.

The Ecological Footprint is a very simple concept.  A Footprint adds up all of the biologically productive land and sea area that is needed to support a population or an individual in a given year.  This provides a measure of total ecological demand.  A population’s Footprint can then be compared to the total amount of biologically productive land on Earth (the ecological supply) that is available to support that population.

The Footprint relies on a few fundamental principles about the way that human and planetary systems function: Resources come from nature, and eventually return to the biosphere as waste. Materials don’t disappear, so we can track them through this whole process of extraction, production, consumption, and eventually waste disposal. The diagram above illustrates a simple path of material flow on the Earth.  Amazingly, the planet makes resources on its own (and free of charge!) which are available for our use.  After use, these resources are converted into waste and deposited again into the biosphere. With no intervention from humans, the biosphere can then take this waste and convert it back to resources--again, on its own and free of charge.

So to begin, how much nature, or biocapacity, is actually available?  The Earth itself has over 130 billion acres of surface area.  This is quite a lot of space, considering that one acre is over 40,000 square feet.  Two-thirds of this area, however, is low productivity ocean.  Another 11% is covered by barren land, glaciers, and ice caps.  Just 18 percent of the surface area of the Earth is productive land, and 4
percent is productive sea, meaning that just about 22 percent of the surface of the Earth is actually available to provide useful goods and services to human society.

This leaves approximately 28 billion acres of biologically productive land on Earth.  This space is shared by just over 6.4 billion humans.  Thus, simple division suggests that there are about 4.5 global acres of biologically productive land available for each person currently alive on Earth. This 4.5 global acre figure assumes that all biologically productive land on Earth is fully appropriated for human uses. There are, however, other species here too. How much of those 4.5 global acres per person should be set aside for other species? The prominent Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson suggests that we should preserve up to 50
percent of the biosphere to protect biodiversity.

Excerpted from material provided by the Global Footprint Network, based in Oakland, CA. For more information, call (510) 839-8879 or visit their website at www.globalfootprint.org


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