Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth

This slim but dense report continues William Rees’ efforts to provide usable tools for assessing our impact on the planet. In 1992, William Rees wrote the first academic paper about the concept of an ecological footprint. The basic idea is to try to measure human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems by comparing human demand with the Earth’s capacity to regenerate.

Though the methodology is far from precise and is constantly being refined, the goal is to boil this relationship down to simple, understandable numbers. For example, in 2006 humanity’s total ecological footprint was estimated to be 1.4: we were consuming resources 1.4 times as fast as the planet could renew them.  Because this methodology can be applied to individual nations as well, it offers a sobering picture of the ecological disparities between rich and poor countries.

Our Ecological Footprint highlights counterintuitive truths like the fact that gains in efficiency—which at first glance might seem to be a good thing environmentally—actually lead to more consumption and more resource usage.  A sobering living green book, I found Rees’ piece a bracing challenge to many of our assumptions about “progress” and much food for thought about how we can reduce our impact on the planet.

1 Comment

  1. Greeley Miklashek, MD

    Important. Thank you! We modern humans are like cell swarms that generate impenetrable technological shells around ourselves, as we dart about in our temporary metal boxes, spewing rubber particles and CO2 into the once pristine atmosphere, while generating enormous quantities of heat. However, we are NOT separate from our genetic heritage, which instills us with a long evolved neuroendocrine population regulation system. None of us would be alive in our contrived, massively overpopulated world, were it not for our extreme altruism, heroic medical interventions in myriad otherwise fatal diseases, public health infrastructures, and unsustainable natural resource extraction. My calculations give us a little more than 100 years until extinction as a species, which may be too late for the rest of the rapidly vanishing ecosystem. Google “Stress R Us” for details.


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