Mathis Wackernagel, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Footprint Network (the organization which has developed the Ecological Footprint measure) gave a speech at the TEDx conference in Sanfrancisco in December 2015. He explained what is the Ecological Footprint and how, thanks to it, we can now measure ‘Sustainable Development.’ Here there is a transcription of Mathis’s speech.
The ecological overshoot
Earth: this awesome planet is full of life and covered by diverse ecosystems; however, people living in this planet (like you and me) are incredibly voracious, to the extent that now it takes 1.6 planets to meet our demand of resources on nature. In other words, It takes Earth 19 months to regenerate what we take in one year. That is what we call ‘ecological overshoot.’ How is that possible?
Let me give you some analogies:
a) Financial overshot: there are people who spend more than they earn; that is possible thanks to debts. Years after years, if debts increase, such people will incur in financial bankruptcy;
b) Cutting-trees overshoot: we cut trees more quickly than they grow; years after years deforestation will occur;
c) Fishing overshoot: we can fish more than fishes repopulate; years after years oceans will be subject to depopulation phenomena.
In the three cases mentioned in the short term people consume more than they can, while in the long term this leads to a bankrupt of resources (financial, trees, fishes)... So the same is for ecological resources: if we use more than Earth can regenerate, ecological bankruptcy will soon happen; that means a very depleted planet with harsh life conditions.
The Ecological Footprint metric
My obsession is to avoid the ecological bankruptcy through the use of metric by measuring how much we use compared with how much is available. We call the demand for resources Ecological Footprint and compare it with Earth’s biocapacity.
Well, while in 1961 Earth’s biocapacity was higher than the resources demanded by human population, now 85% of the population live in countries that use more resources than their ecosystems can renew.
In fact, there is an overarching trend. It’s true, Earth biocapacity has increased by 25% over the last 50 years. But our Ecological Footprint has grown even more (2-and-half-fold). The result is that now we use 60% more resources than our planet can offer us.
Figure – the Ecological Overshoot
Source: LTEconomy elaboration on Global Footprint Network
How can countries use more ecological resources than they have?
The ecological balance varies from country to country. There are countries with an enormous ecological deficit and other with an ecological surplus. How can countries be in a state of ecological deficit? There are three mechanisms:
1) Ecosystem exploitation: they use their ecosystem more than it can regenerate;
2) Imports: the imports of ecological resources exceed the exports of them;
3) Using the global commons: they use the ‘global commons,’ for example by emitting more carbon emissions than the average.
Sustainable Development: how can it be measured?
Now this contradiction between planetary boundaries and our growing appetite for resources has been widely recognized and since the 70s a lot of books have been published.
In September 2015, more than 150 world leaders got together to build the ever largest plan for sustainable development: the sustainable development goals.
What exactly do they mean with Sustainable Development? There are several different definitions. But the essence is that this concept is made by two goals that can be both measurable:
1) Development: we all want great lives, satisfying our essential (material and immaterial) needs. This is what we call development. But how can it be measured? Well, the United Nations has come up with a very interesting measure that takes into accounts different factors (not just incomes, but also access to education, and possibility to live a long and healthy life) which says to us how much a country is developed: the Human Development Index (HDI). HDI ranges from ‘0’ (no development) to ‘1’ (maximum development); 0.7 is the threshold to be included among countries with a high HDI.
2) Sustainable: development must be reached taking into accounts the limits of our planet; it must be sustainable. How can sustainability be measured? In this case the science of the Ecological Footprint comes to help us. It says to us that, on average, every human on earth has 1.7 hectares of Earth at their disposal. That means that if we want to live within the limits imposed by nature, we should not overtake that threshold (1.7 hectares of Earth for every individual).
Figure – The Box of Sustainable Development
Source: Global Footprint Network
The problem now is that the higher the development of a country, the higher its ecological footprint is. At any rate, we also observe that at any level of development there is an overuse of Earth’s resources.
Every country’s objective should be to be in the box of Sustainable Development, that is, a HDI higher than 0.7 and an Ecological Footprint lower than 1.7 hectares.
How can we do that?
All depends on you. You have three tools to act:
1) Measure: now you can measure Sustainable Development, thanks to the sciences of HDI and Ecological Footprint;
2) Voice: thanks to this measure, you can ask your mayor and any other local or national representatives for sustainable development, for a better city acting on the transport system, the power system, the waste management and so on...
3) our life: where do you want to live? In which way do you want to live? Do you want to give any contributes to the cause of Sustainable Development? What are the projects you are involved in?
The conclusion is that with the Ecological Footprint now you have the measure. But in the end, ‘the path is yours.’
Thanks to Mathis Wackernagel for his speech at the same time ‘scientific’ and ‘very clear.’
LTEconomy’s transcription has changed some terms and phrases used in the speech to make the article more concise and fluid.
LTEconomy, April 3, 2016
Mathis Wackernagel’s Speech at TEDx Sanfrancisco -
Sustainable Development summit (September 2015) -
The Ecological Footprint science -
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