Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Ecological Footprints

March 5, 2003

Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Ecological Footprints


All the talk in the last few years regarding sustainable development has been great. We as a society have gained some wonderful new principles about ways in which our activities can develop so as not to jeopardize the future of our planet. The WCED’s 1987 definition of sustainable development, the one to which most people refer when talking about sustainability, outlines sustainable development as that which “…meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sounds great; who could disagree with the need to leave this planet in good shape for the sake of our kids?

But, as with any principle, the proof of its value is in the pudding. The usefulness of the sustainable development concept is put to the test when we try to create practicable applications from its directives. While concepts alone can be important in influencing our way of thinking, the environmental crisis is such that it has become essential to take real action toward the goal of sustainability.

A key question in environmental circles is this: how can we know when our actions, policy decisions and development activities are “sustainable”? How can one course of action be judged against another with respect to its potential impact on sustainability? Sustainable development is such a broad concept that it may seem impossible for any one set of criteria to be comprehensive enough to effectively guide us toward sustainability.

However, a number of thinkers have developed an amazing tool for doing just that. Known as “Ecological Footprint Analysis,” this analytical tool is an effective, user-friendly mechanism that allows one to measure the sustainability of various activities and lifestyle choices. The ecological footprint represents the land area needed to support a given human activity. The analysis takes into account the land area required for meeting our material demands, and for absorption of the waste materials we produce. Ecological footprint analysis represents a unique tool that allows for an evaluation of the relative impact of one choice as compared to another.

Providing a picture of where we stand at present is one of the strengths of ecological footprint analysis. Embarrassingly, Canadians rank second highest in the world in terms of our average footprint, topped only by our American neighbours. A typical Canadian’s lifestyle requires 4.3 hectares of land to support his or her daily activities. Roughly the land area of three city blocks, this may not seem that bad. However, given the fact that there are only 1.5 hectares of productive land per person on the earth right now, only 0.25 of which are arable, our ecological overshoot becomes clear. There’s an interesting mathematical twist to all of this: in order to support all six billion people at the same level of consumption and waste disposal as Canadians, we would need three planets. Any extra Earths on the market?

OK, I know the ecological footprint idea may be getting some of you down. This is just another means of making us all feel guilty, right? Well, the great thing about ecological footprint analysis is that it isn’t just a camera illuminating the present situation. It is also a powerful tool for directing us along a path toward sustainability. Therefore, it is unique as an environmental concept in that it inspires rather than drains; it gives concrete ideas for improvement rather than just leaving us all feeling guilt-ridden.

Everyone should calculate his or her own ecological footprint, for fun and as an informative exercise. Don’t worry – there’s no math involved. You just input the variables on the website listed below and voila: your ecological footprint value appears! Be prepared for a surprise: I thought I was so environmentally conscious, and was shocked when my footprint turned out to be so high. But sometimes embarrassment is a good spur to action. And the best part is, you can plug in alternative values to see what actions will lower your footprint the most. Hmmm, hang my laundry once in a while rather than put it in the dryer…? Walk or ride my bike to work or to a friend’s house – at least once a week…? The exercise of testing out alternatives is fun and gives you the feeling that yes, simple choices can strongly influence the level of impact we have on the environment. Ecological footprint analysis is a simple tool that highlights where we are at in terms of our impact on the planet, and what measures we can take to ensure that we will have a great legacy to hand on to our kids, their kids, their kids, and theirs…

For more information on ecological footprint analysis, check out the following website: (the site was created by a great organization called Redefining Progress). Navigate through to the online footprint quiz for some analytical fun. For those of you who’d like to delve in a little further, try getting your hands on Our Ecological Footprint by M. Wackernagel and W. Rees (1996). It’s a great read.

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at