The phrase "environmental footprint" is a metaphor used to depict the amount of land and water area a human population would hypothetically need to provide the resources required to support itself and to absorb its wastes, given prevailing environmental technology. The term was first coined in 1992 by Canadian ecologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, William Rees.

Footprinting is now widely used around the globe as an indicator of environmental sustainability. It can be used to measure and manage the use of resources throughout the economy. It is commonly used to explore the sustainability of individual lifestyles, goods and services, organizations, industry sectors, neighborhoods, cities, regions and nations.

It measures the people's demand on nature and compares human consumption of natural resources with the earth's ecological capacity to regenerate them. Human footprint has exceeded the biocapacity of the planet by 25%.

Ecological footprint analysis[]

Ecological footprint analysis approximates the amount of ecologically productive land, sea and other water mass area required to sustain a population, manufacture a product, or undertake certain activities, by accounting the use of energy, food, water, building material and other consumables. The calculations used typically convert this into a measure of land area used in 'global hectares' (gha) per person.

It is a way of determining relative consumption for the purpose of educating people about their resource use and, sometimes, triggering them to alter their [[Wikipedia:over-consumption]|over-consumption]. It can be combined with overpopulation concerns and stated as "the number of Earths it would take to support every human living exactly the way you do." Ecological footprints is used to argue that current lifestyles are not sustainable development. For example, the average "earthshare" available to each human citizen is approximately 1.9 gha per capita. The US average footprint is 9.5 gha per capita, and that of Wikipedia:Switzerland:Switzerland 4 gha, whilst China's is circa 1.5 gha per head.[1]

A number of NGO websites allow estimation of one's ecological footprint (see Footprint Calculator, below).

Changing consumption patterns[]

It is human use of renewable resources, not of non-renewable ones, at a rate beyond their carrying capacity, that poses the real sustainability crisis. Nature can restore renewable resources at a certain rate. Humans consistently and increasingly consume renewables faster than and can replenish them.

This state of excessive ecological burden eventually threatens those very ecosystems by not allowing them sufficient time to "recharge." Furthermore, humans can clearly live without nonrenewable resources such as metals or fossil fuels, as we have done in the not-so-distant past. It is the renewable resource base on which we and all species depend. The ecological footprint approach can introduce the concept of resource recharge and the rate at which we use resources as key elements in more sustainable human societies. This time element helps us understand that it's not just what we use, or even how much, but how fast, and over what period of time. This meshes with other movements to "slow down" human consumption, choose simple living and help people disengage from that acceleration of actions and expectations that has been a crucial feature of industrial societies.


  • William Rees (1992) 'Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: what urban economics leaves out' Environment and Urbanisation Vol 4 no 2 Oct 1992
  • Wackernagel, M. and W. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. ISBN 0-86571-312-X
  • Lenzen, M. and Murray, S. A. 2003. "The Ecological Footprint - Issues and Trends". ISA Research Paper 01-03
  • Chambers, N., Simmons, C. and Wackernagel, M. 2000. Sharing Nature's Interest: ecological footprints as an indicator of sustainability. Earthscan, London ISBN 1-85383-739-3 (see also
  • J.C.J.M. van den Bergh and H. Verbruggen (1999), Spatial sustainability, trade and indicators: an evaluation of the ‘ecological footprint’, Ecological Economics, Vol. 29(1): 63-74.
  1. Chambers, N. et al (2004) Scotland’s Footprint. Best Foot Forward. ISBN 0-9546042-0-2.

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