Mathis Wackernagel

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INTERVIEW WITH  Mathis Wackernagel
("Global Footprint Network," President -

Mathis Wackernagel is co-creator of the Ecological Footprint and President of Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think-tank. Global Footprint Network focuses on bringing about a sustainable human economy in which all can live well within the means of one planet. It proposes the Ecological Footprint, which measures how much nature we use and how much nature we have, as a tool for bringing ecological limits to the center of decision-making everywhere. Recently, Global Footprint Network was named (for the second consecutive year) one of the world’s top 100 non-governmental organizations by the Global Journal. According to the Ecological Footprint account in 2011, today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. What does this means and what we can do to save our planet from resource depletion? We asked  Mathis Wackernagel these and other questions.
INTERVIEW - (February 2013)
The interview was realized and published in February 2013 - (Original interview in English)
Ecological Footprint: concept, its level and effects of high levels of ecological footprint
1. Question: The Global Footprint Network was established in 2003. What were at that time the drivers inspiring its establishment, how much progress has it done since then and on what activities is it focusing more on these days?

Sustainable development discussions that ignore how much planet we have and how much we use are nonsensical. Yet most sustainability discussions from the United Nations to national plans to local initiatives continue to ignore this basic fact. This led us to conceive the Ecological Footprint in the early 1990s. Encouraged by the early success, we felt an international home for the Footprint was needed and we founded Global Footprint Network in 2003. It has become an international nonprofit think-tank with a presence in Oakland (California), Geneva and Brussels. It works to end ecological overshoot by making ecological limits central to decision making, using Ecological Footprint accounting.  It aims at influencing major investments and policy shifts with strategic stakeholders to support global sustainability.
In 2005, Global Footprint Network launched a campaign with the goal of institutionalizing the Ecological Footprint in at least ten nations by 2015. More than 50 nations have engaged with the organization directly and 17 have completed reviews of the Footprint. Japan, Switzerland, UAE, Ecuador, Finland, Latvia, Luxembourg, as well as Scotland and Wales have formally adopted the Footprint in official government initiatives. We annually update the world’s primary Ecological Footprint accounts, using about 7,000 data points per country and year. In our existence, we have been in communication with 53 national governments (18 of them in 2012) through customized reports, workshops and personal meetings.
While we have not yet been able to turn around countries, our efforts are being more and more recognized: Recently, Global Footprint Network was named (for the second consecutive year) one of the world’s top 100 non-governmental organizations by the Global Journal and two of its executives (and some of its advisors) were included among the top 100 social movers by the Enrich List. In 2012, William Rees and I —both co-creators of the Ecological Footprint—received the International Society for Ecological Economics’ Kenneth E. Boulding Memorial Award  and the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize, and I was awarded the Binding Prize for Nature and Environmental Conservation.  For further background, visit us at

Question: According to the Ecological Footprint account in 2011, the Earth’s total biocapacity is 1.8 global hectares (gha) per person, while humanity’s Ecological Footprint is 2.7 (gha) per person. This discrepancy means that 1.5 Earths are required to satisfy humans’ demands on ecological resources and that we are depleting the planet’s  resources. What are the main consequences in the short, medium and long term?
Using more than what we earn depletes our wealth and eventually leads to bankruptcy. This is true for money, and for resources. This is why ecological overshoot is so serious. Some effects are felt now (CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, for example, or smaller and smaller fish, deforestation and soil loss). Other effects will be felt later—loss of productivity due to climate change and soil loss, even higher prices for resources. Some countries’ economies are already severely limited by ecological constraints. Haiti is a vivid case. But also the resource scarcity in some North African countries has added to the economic and social pain of those countries.

Question: In your opinion, is humanity still in time to prevent Earth’ resource depletion? And is there a threshold for the Ecological Footprint, that once surpassed will trigger an unstoppable  process of sources depletion?
Of course there is time. It’s just that the effort required to rectify the situation increases with every month we wait.

Question: In some countries (Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, United States of America, Belgium, Australia, etc.) the Ecological Footprint is very high. How do you explain that? What is, in your opinion, the root cause that make humanity overshooting our planet’s biocapacity?
Easy access to fossil fuel has allowed us to do more with less effort, enabling rapid economic expansion over the last two centuries. Unfortunately, not only are there now limits to easily accessible fossil fuels, but more importantly how much CO2 the biosphere can tolerate. Countries with easy access to fossil fuel, or strong financial resources that allow them to access fossil fuel from elsewhere, have typically high Ecological Footprints, including high carbon Footprints.

Question: According to the UNEP’s “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production, 2010”, “Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives”. Apart from human diet, what do you think about the impact on Earth’s  resources by the business of bovine meat?
The bigger question is: What is the risk to an economy if it depends on ever higher amounts of resources it does not have available within its own boundaries, when the world is in ever larger ecological overshoot? In other words, some quite fundamental shifts will be needed if we want to secure stable, prosperous economies, including dietary shifts.

Question: What can  developed and developing countries do in order to bring the Global Ecological Footprint below 1.8 gha per capita? Who has the main role in this process: governments or citizens?
I do not understand what you mean by “developing and developed countries.” We only see “countries.” Some are big, some small, some landlocked, some with ocean access. For every country the questions are the same: How to secure people’s well-being given ecological limitations? What are the wisest choices for each economy? What is their optimum resource consumption? Twentieth-century labels for countries, even if still used by UN agencies, have become highly unproductive and insinuate that the only path to securing human wellbeing is achieved through economic expansion. Let’s bury these deceptive and divisive labels.

Question: Among your activities (Human development initiatives, Footprint for Finance, Footprint for cities, Footprint for business) what is that help most a countries in reducing their Ecological Footprint? What are the countries more inclined towards the Global Network initiatives?
A country will only want to reduce its Footprint because it sees it as part of its own self-interest. That’s why our main effort is focused on convincing decision-makers about the link to their nation’s self-interest to address resource constraints aggressively. We do not ask them to reduce the Footprint; rather we ask them to succeed—which we believe would involve minimizing their resource deficits. Once they recognize this themselves, we can work with them to find out what the best options are to build a stable and prosperous economy in a resource-constrained world.

Question: Finally, if you could send a message to humans, what would you advise them to do to preserve themselves and our planet in the long period?
If I could make only one suggestion, I would encourage policy makers to go for (per capita) wealth preservation—or even better, wealth creation. Unfortunately, we continue to run after income maximization (or GDP) which often comes at the cost of depleting our wealth. Who can be against building our wealth? And why are we continuing to destroy our wealth?