Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

Activity 3C: Estimating your personal ecological footprint

In this activity the aim is to begin to engage in mathematical modelling by quantifying your ecological impact. The transition between qualitative quality of life indicators and quantitative ecological footprinting also requires a shift from visual and verbal modelling to mathematical modelling as we move from personal subjective feelings to physical objective reality (which, in theory, we should be able to measure and verify more precisely).

Whatever our quality of life, we all rely on natural resources to sustain our activities and to assimilate the resulting wastes. Once again, I would like you to look back at your personal ecology model and decide which activities you think to be resource intensive and which activities produce significant amounts of waste. Just like economic 'cost benefit analyses', where you weigh up the financial returns of any decision, you could consider this as a quality of life/environmental cost benefit analysis i.e. when it comes to making a decision on which activity to engage in, how do you know which one is going to have the greatest environmental/quality of life benefit/cost? This kind of cost benefit analysis is now also carried out within all sorts of organisations, from schools to businesses to government departments, and will most probably become an increasingly important tool within the decision-making process at all levels (in some cases the decision-making process is made even more complicated by weighing up the costs and benefits of three distinct areas: economic; social, and environmental, i.e. the 'triple bottom line'). The Ecological Footprint Index simplifies your environmental impact into a single land area measurement representing the proportion of Earth that you require to sustain your activities.


There are many different ways of calculating your ecological footprint, each varying in the level of detail required and assumptions made. I would recommend using the World Wildlife Fund's ecological footprint calculator, but you are also free to use whichever calculator you prefer (some require more detailed answers and therefore provide more accurate estimates).

First of all, have a quick scan of the kind of data that you need to provide within the calculator of your choice. I recommend that you use a pragmatic approach in collecting your raw data. Use personal data when you can compile it readily and when this is difficult increase your organisational scale of observation – e.g. collect household data and then estimate your contribution as a fraction of the total number of individuals (including children) living in your household. Obviously, the less 'personal' your data is, the less precisely you will be able to generate your ecological footprint.

Once you have completed your calculation, enter your estimated ecological footprint in the Ecological footprint poll, and compare your results with those of fellow participants and with those estimated by the Global Footprint Network. From the Global Footprint Network website, you can download the latest national footprint results spreadsheet. On the spreadsheet you will be able to see the average ecological footprint (hectares per person) for most nations around the world. The spreadsheet also includes which factors contribute to a nation's average ecological footprint. These figures can be compared to a nation's biocapacity, and you can see whether the difference between the average ecological footprint and the average biocapacity results in an ecological deficit.

Look up your nation's values and compare these to your estimated ecological footprint calculation.

  1. Are you contributing to your nation's ecological deficit?
  2. Which component of the ecological footprint is the most significant?
  3. Can you identify particular activities that have a disproportionate impact on your own and your nation's ecological deficit?

In your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , reflect on whether your footprint is socially and/or ecologically sustainable. What do you think are the impacts of your footprint on other people and other species around the world?


The national ecological footprints estimated by the Global Footprint Network clearly show that most people in the developed world are sustaining a quality of life which relies on more resources than the carrying capacity of the Earth. There are two clear alternatives that could result:

  1. We continue with 'business as usual' and hope that a technological solution will emerge quite soon (Star Trek scenario) or accept the consequences when they happen (Mad Max scenario).
  2. We quickly change our priorities towards the elements within our personal ecologies that contribute favourably to our quality of life, but have a minimal impact on our environment, and consequently, the quality of life of other people. This could either be imposed on us from the top (Big Government scenario) or we willingly move in this direction ourselves (Ecotopia scenario).

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