Interview With Ecological Footprint's Co-Creator
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 18, 2006
The Ecological Footprint Offers a Tool to Measure Human Consumption of Resources
Interview with Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
Listen in RealAudio:
Worldwide human population is on the rise, and the demand for resources is increasing even faster. In the current situation, a tool called the Ecological Footprint is one way to measure how much land and water humans need to produce the resources they use and to absorb the waste they create. Using internationally accepted measurement tools, it's been determined that humans need an average of 4.5 acres -- or footprint -- per person to meet those needs. But in the U.S., the average footprint is 24 acres. Thus, it would take five Earth-size planets to meet humanity's resource needs if everyone consumed as much as the average American.
Ever-larger footprints have led to a situation in which humans are consuming almost 25 percent more resources each year than can be regenerated annually. And that doesn't even take into account what resources non-human life forms require. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mathis Wackernagel, the co-creator of the Ecological Footprint. A Swiss citizen now living in Oakland, Calif., Wackernagel recently visited Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he gave speeches and workshops on how to utilize the tool. He maintains the method provides objective measurements, which then can be used by governments or non-governmental organizations to evaluate the impact of city, region or country on the world's resources.
MATHIS WACKERNAGEL: The footprint is not about how bad things are or how bad you are. It’s just a statement of where we’re at and what we can do about things. So, it’s interesting to know for yourself where you’re at. But obviously, it’s not just about you, but it’s about also the systems you have built around you. The wealthiest Americans, with very large footprints; they love to go to Italy. And in Italy, the footprint per person is about 2.5 times smaller than the U.S. average, and not because they are particularly virtuous, ecologically speaking; (but) just because they have inherited cities that are very efficient in terms of being compact. People walk around, they eat more local food because it’s available in compact cities, they have markets, etc. So all these things, structurally, without anybody’s intentions, allow everybody to have a very high quality of life at much lower resource consumption, or footprint, as we say.
So, I think the first attention really needs to go towards, how can we build infrastructures that will support efficient, high-quality lifestyles at low footprints. People often ask me, What can we do to reduce our ecological footprints? And I think they expect me to say, "Drive less, eat less meat, don’t eat chocolate!" I don’t know…things like that. And what I tend to say is, "Just maximize your quality of life, because if you really think about quality of life, what does it take to use your budget on this planet best?" The budget is probably, for an individual, it’s time, really. It’s how many hours do you have on this amazing planet? How do you want to use your hours? Do you want to use it to maximize your income? Then you cannot even spend it because you don’t have time to spend it.
Or is it to fulfill your dreams? And then you can find other ways. Perhaps money is not the limiting factor. It’s really time. And people if they really start to think about quality of life and what’s the purpose of their life and when they’re most happy in their life, most people will come to the conclusion to change their life in a way that, at the same time, also reduces the footprint. So quality of life can be a driver, and most often you’ll find that resource consumption you depend on is a barrier to a high quality of life, not an enabler.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you say more about how this approach could be useful in promoting environmental justice within a country and around the world?
MATHIS WACKERNAGEL: I think what we do first is provide analysis and say, "That’s the way it is." So we have a basis for decision-making. And what we’ll see is that ecological assets are very differently used in different countries, and very differently available. For example, the Dutch have a very dense population in a small country, so they have little biological capacity per person. That’s the way historically it developed. That’s where they’re at right now. They still use significantly more than what they have, so they run a relatively significant ecological deficit, meaning they depend on either importing extra capacity or depleting their own assets. They are wealthy enough that they’re able to import a big part of that difference, so they’re able to not degrade their own ecological ecosystems.
Now, other countries like Rwanda, they don’t have the economic means to import more than what they have available locally, so has to start to use more, and leads to liquidation, like for example, deforestation or erosion of agricultural capacity, or whatever form it may take. So, we just help to show where countries are at, and I think that helps strengthen more fruitful dialogue between countries. What we’ve seen, for example, is that in the last round of the Biodiversity Convention, which brings together most countries in the world -- the U.S. is not part of it, the Russian, and Brazilian and Colombian -- all countries with significant ecological capacity, and that doesn’t mean they use that ecological capacity very effectively or sustainably; they just have a lot. They recognize that the footprint is actually an important asset for them to point out that they have assets and it puts them in a much stronger position in international negotiations than, let’s say, Switzerland, that doesn’t have much available.
And so, they have proposed the ecological footprint as a measure of biodiversity, to recognize ecological assets, and I think they get more valued on both sides; those who see their deficits as a liability or risk factor in their economic performance, but also those who recognize perhaps that gobbling up their reserve may be the stupidest thing they could do. Having it in reserve is one of their biggest assets that separates them from the crowd and gives them a competitive advantage in the future. So I think for both sides, it leads us in the right direction of saying ecological assets matter, we need to preserve them, we depend on them.
Contact the Ecological Footprint network by calling (510) 839-8879 or visit their website at www.footprintnetwork.org. Visit www.ecofoot.org to take the ecological footprint quiz and see how many planets your lifestyle requires.
Related links at http://www.btlonline.org/btl042106.html#3hed
Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The
Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and
in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at
http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was
featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio
newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April
21, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda
Tuhus and Anna