The ecological footprint is a good place to start in order to know the amount of resources available on earth to sustain an individual’s lifestyle and consumption patterns. This may vary with which part of the world the individual lives in. It takes into account various factors and can be very complex, but simply put: it is a measure of the overall consumption pattern of world resources by an individual, organization, state or country.
A more formal definition would be:
“The ecological footprint is a measure of how consumption may affect the environment by taking account of food and fiber production, energy use, and human use of land for living space and other purposes” (Dietz, Rosa, York, 2007).
According to the global footprint network, humans uses an equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide for our current resource consumption and our waste absorption, which means that it takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in one year (World Footprint, 2015).
While consumption patterns of people can be one factor that affects the world’s ecological footprint, another important factor is world population. Due to exponential growth in the human population, in 2010 the recorded population was around 6.9 billion people (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 20). Most of the population were in developing countries which accounted for 82% of the world’s population.
“Even though the poor in less developed countries have no choice but to use very few resources per person, their large population size leads to a high overall environmental impact” (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 22). Some scientists and analysts argue that overpopulation is the problem, and with increasing development in these countries, resource consumption from these countries are going to put a strain on the carrying capacity of the earth.
This can give us a hint that the world may not be able to continue sustaining human populations if we continue on this trajectory; the United Nations predicts that by the 2030’s we will need two earths to sustain current lifestyles (World Footprint, 2015).
India is the second most populous country on earth after China. India has 17% of the world’s people, but just 2.3% of the world’s land resources and 2% of its forests.
“India is undergoing rapid economic growth, which is expected to accelerate. As members of its growing middle class increase their resource use per person, India’s ecological footprint will expand and increase the pressure on the country’s and the earth’s natural capital” (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 143).
To calculate my personal ecological footprint for my lifestyle in India, I used the ecological footprint calculator on footprintnetwork.org. The data I input into the calculator included details on personal housing, consumer items, transport, food and trash. According to the calculator, my personal ecological footprint for my Indian lifestyle accounted for about 2.9 hectares of global productive area and required a regenerative capacity of 1.5 planets each year. This is above the world average ecological footprint per capita which is 2.2 global hectares and also above the average ecological footprint per capita for an Indian which is 0.8 global hectares (World Footprint, 2015). More than 50% of this share accounted for mobility and contributed towards the major part of the footprint with food and shelter lagging behind, while services, governance and goods were negligible with a very small percentage of the total.
The United States is by far the most resource hungry nation on earth, and the per capita ecological footprint is the highest in the world. If everyone in today’s world consumed resources like the average American does, the earth would not be able to indefinitely support today’s population of 6.9 billion but only support about 1.3 billion people (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 17). The same authors also say, “In 2003, the U.S. per capita ecological footprint was about 4.5 times the average global footprint per person, 6 times larger than China’s per capita footprint, and 12 times the average per capita footprint of the world’s low-income countries” (p.16). My personal ecological footprint for my lifestyle in the USA amounted to 5.6 planet earths for resources and 23.7 global acres or 9.59 hectares of earth’s productive area according to the ecological footprint calculator on footprintnetwork.org. This is about the average ecological footprint of a person living in the United States. About two thirds of my footprint was for food and services while the third was equally split towards shelter, mobility and goods.
It seems that my resource consumption is much more for my lifestyle here in the USA as opposed to my lifestyle in India. To draw a comparison; while in India, I used a car to travel and traveled much more over some weekends across cities, lived in an air conditioned independent house with a friend and ate normally with minimal expenses spent towards consumer items.
While in the USA, I have not used a car for personal travel, live in a shared dorm and have not traveled much at all. Although, when it comes to food in the USA, I have been having mostly processed food and meat at almost every meal, while in India, my consumption of processed food and meat were much less.
I also observe that here in the USA the built up area and energy consumed per capita is much more. In India, lights in public buildings and corridors are turned off at night, but here I observe that it is mostly lit up. Public transportation is another major difference; in India the majority of people use buses and trains for transportation, while in the USA people use more personal cars for travel. I suppose all these factors add up to one’s ecological footprint. In my American ecological footprint, services accounted for about one third of the total as opposed to my Indian ecological footprint where services were very negligible.
The total ecological footprint of America is 2810 million hectares with 225% share of global biological capacity, while the total ecological footprint of India is 780 million hectares with 7% share of global biological capacity (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 16). The authors also go on to state that the estimated average ecological footprint of each American is 9.5 times larger than the footprint of the average Indian (p. 129).
While ecological footprints of the average American or the average Indian maybe quantifiable, is it possible to conceive the ecological footprints of the top 1% richest people living in these two countries or even the world? Oxfam International predicts that the combined wealth of the richest 1% in the world will overtake the balance 99% in 2016 (Oxfam International, 2015).
Dario Kenner in his paper “Inequality of overconsumption: The ecological footprint of the richest” states that there is missing data and no research that quantifies the environmental impact of High Net worth Individuals (HNWIs) or as a group of individuals who live resource intensive lifestyles as they travel in private jets and yachts, live in luxury mansions and purchase luxury goods and items. But he also points out that there are those who invest in protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gases in developing countries (Kenner, D., 2015)
Do these facts and figures demand a lifestyle change among people? Should governments and policymakers do something about this, and if so, how should they act? Whose responsibility is it primarily? Is it possible to affect change towards a more sustainable future by behavioral change? These are all natural questions that are bound to come up in people’s minds when facts are presented to them.
One shining example of environmental transformation is that of Chattanooga, Tennessee. During the 1960’s it used to be one of the dirtiest and most polluted cities in the U.S.A. In 1984 civic leaders and citizens came together with an intent of changing things. The community worked together by generating various ideas, solutions and goals to transform the City. Now Chattanooga has become a more livable and sustainable city with low pollution, parks, freshwater aquarium and recycling programs.
Chattanooga’s story shows that individuals matter and that if individuals come together and act, change is possible. Social scientists say that it takes only 5-10% of people, whether it’s a community, country or the world, to bring about major change, also that significant change can come in a much shorter span than imagined (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, pp. 25,26). And so the answer to the questions raised above could be that it is the responsibility of the individual and the community. Both working in tandem can bring about ecological transformation and sustainability.
As Mahatma Gandhi’s famous paraphrased quote goes “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Since individuals matter, my low carbon lifestyle is worth mentioning. I live in a shared dorm on campus with a low heating space, I recycle my trash, have one hot shower daily in the recreation center as opposed to twice at home, walk to school, do not own a car and travel by bus or share a car ride with a friend, eat on an average two meals a day, turn off the lights in my room when not in use, drink water from the fountain instead of bottled water, reuse items, reduce wastage and am overall conscious about the environment and try to make a difference where possible. My Carbon Footprint Calculator shows that my greenhouse gas emission is 16 tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) equivalent per year which is much below the U.S average of 27 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. Suppose I had lived my normal Indian lifestyle here in the USA, my greenhouse gas emissions would be estimated at 19 tons of CO2 equivalent per year according to the carbon footprint calculator. So in one sense my lifestyle has a low impact on the environment.
“Some see the rapid population growth of the poor in less developed countries as the primary cause of our environmental problems. Others say that the much higher resource use per person in more-developed countries is a more important factor” (Miller & Spoolman, 2012, p. 23).
While there will also be those who point out the extravagant lifestyles of the rich across the world are the cause of our problems. Whatever the case, being conscious of one’s lifestyle with respect to the environment is very important and is often the first step towards achieving sustainability. Reducing resource consumption in itself is not the aim but eliminating unnecessary consumption when it is feasible and when there are alternatives. Like using the water fountain on campus is more sustainable than buying packaged drinking water every day, but purchasing package drinking water maybe a more feasible option while traveling or in other circumstances. Similarly carpooling is a better option than driving to school by yourself daily. It might be the role of sustainability professionals who know more about this to create alternatives like the water fountain or the carpooling website so that people can choose one over the other.
Those who are aware of ecological footprints and the impact humans have on the environment have more of a responsibility to live sustainably, create alternatives and educate others of our impact on the environment, the rest; as they say in Jurassic Park “Life finds a way”.
Dietz, Rosa, York. (2007). Driving The Human Ecological Footprint. Frontiers in Ecology and the
Kenner, D. (2015, November). Inequality of overconsumption. Retrieved from www.anglia.ac.uk.
Miller & Spoolman. (2012). Living in the Environment. Belmont: Brooks/Cole.
Oxfam International. (2015, January 19). Retrieved from oxfam.org:
World Footprint. (2015, NOVEMBER 10). Retrieved from Global Footprint Network: