Ecological Footprint analysis measures:
“human demand on nature. It compares human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them. It is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate (if possible) the resources a human population consumes and to absorb the corresponding waste, given prevailing technology and current understanding. Using this assessment, it is possible to estimate how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity if everybody lived a given lifestyle.” (source)
(Anyone born after 1980 has probably calculated their ecological footprint in elementary school on Earth Day.)
Global Footprint Network is a non-governmental organization promoting Ecological Footprint analysis as a legitimate indicator of environmental and resource sustainability. “Global Footprint Network’s vision is to make the Ecological Footprint as prominent a metric as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 2015, … Global Footprint Network aims to have ten countries managing their ecological wealth in the same way they manage their finances” (source). GDP, you’ll recall, is basically the economic value of all goods and services produced within a geographic region over a period of time. It certainly seems like a prudent, conservative idea to factor in the long-term availability and health of natural resources and ecosystem services that play a pivotal, though often obscured, role in GDP.
Pawl Hawken argues in one of my favorite essays on this topic that we are best served by addressing issues of environmental conservation and degradation within the framework of capitalism. If we properly calculate the real market value of ecosystem services – for example, flood and storm protection afforded by wetlands – the cost of developing these wetlands will often exceed the financial benefits. Thus achieving an ‘environmental win’ without the protests, letter writing campaigns, and hand-wringing. Hawken’s approach is but one idea, and is by no means perfect or particularly easy, but it is worth contemplating – would including all the environmental costs and benefits of doing business into the actual transaction (internalizing externalities) be a step towards environmental sustainability… and better business? (check it out: Hawken, P. 1994. “Restoring the Guardian.” In: The Ecology of Commerce. HarperCollins: New York.)
We digress a bit from the news of the day – Saturday was Ecological Debt Day. That means, that according to Global Footprint Network’s calculation of our annual global ecological footprint, we are now living beyond the ecological means of the planet. All the resources we consume between now and the end of 2007 will be added to our ecological debt. We have been finishing the year in the red since 1987, where the global footprint exceeded biocapacity on December 19th. Obviously, the situation is worsening.
So what are the consequences of accumulating this ecological debt? It means we are eating into our ecological ‘principal’, resulting in less ‘interest’ potential for subsequent years. We are exceeding the capacity of many systems to regenerate, including forests and fisheries, and regional-global cycles are being overwhelmed (e.g. carbon cycles). Thus, in addition to increasing our demand, our base level of biocapacity is decreasing. This is explained at length, and far more elegantly, here.
I do not generally think scare tactics are a particularly useful tool for effecting positive environmental change. Certainly there are historical precedents set in the era of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb”, but while these motivated a base to literally create the modern environmental movement, they effectively excluded many potential constituents. Only now are we seeing the first inkling of interest in environmental issues from the mainstream political conservatives, Christian conservatives, and the business community, and issues such as climate change require universal participation to be successful.
Also, there are some major weaknesses of the model, the most significant of which (in my humble opinion) is that because Ecological Footprint analysis works best for global assessments, and by calculating our global Ecological Debt, we obliterate the great disparity between individual contributions. The US, Western Europe, Japan, etc. have much greater culpability than individuals and nations in other parts of the world. And I believe that individual – or per capita – patterns of consumption are more important than national levels. We hear all the time about how India and China need to get on-board with global pollution controls, and the US won’t play unless they do too. Quickly developing nations should participate, but we need to remember that our per capita emissions greatly dwarf almost all Indians and Chinese, even if their national emissions (as a result of their huge populations) are starting to approach ours. We need to not forget our responsibility to make changes in our individual lifestyles.
However, I do think Ecological Debt is a powerful tool for communicating the concept of ecological sustainability. And I think the metaphor encourages us to think about ecosystem goods and services in an accounting/financial framework, which I believe to be a good thing sometimes. Many of us struggle with managing our personal debt at some time in our lives; hopefully the consequences of carrying too much ecological debt will resonate and we can start to push for changes in our national environmental policies, and more importantly work on balancing the ecological budget in our own lives.