Ecological Footprint Essay Sample

Human Impact on the Environment & Environmental Impact on Humans

Human beings have an enormous impact on the natural environment, and ultimately on each other. The way we chose to house, clothe, shelter, and meet the needs for vital resources such as food, energy, and water, not only affect the long-term availability of those resources but well-functioning Earth systems such as climate systems, hydrological cycles, nutrient cycles in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere, and the maintenance of a diverse biosphere. But equally significant is the fact that some of our personal and collective choices have an enormous impact on the way human beings interact in cooperative and competitive modes, including the increasingly global search for renewable and non-renewal resources and global efforts to extract benefits from distant locations and in the process limit the extent of environmental degradation. 

There are many useful ways of measuring anthropogenic impact. We can measure ecological footprints by an assessment of some share of global resources that are needed to support a particular type of lifestyle. We can measure specific things such as our individual carbon footprint or individual water footprint (see Water Scarcity). Or we can use broader impact measures to better understand the collective impact of certain forms of social organization, modes of production, or the alteration of the natural landscape for the construction of population centers. Equally important is the assessment of the numbers of people the resources of the Earth or some specific locale can sustain. 

How all these individual and collective decisions bear on human well-being are equally important to how they bear on the environment. The entries on this page explore some of these interactive relationships.

As you read through these entries it is worth reflecting on some quite fundamental questions.
  • Were we to do an inventory of the biggest anthropogenic threats to the environment, what would be on our list?
  • Which of these environmental threats pose the biggest threats to human health and the human habitat?
  • Which, if any, environmental threats are results of efforts to find solutions to other environmental threats?

We can also think of the main sources of threats by thinking about types of people, given their lifestyles and choices, activities, resource requirements, and the adverse impact they often have on others. A list that might be generated from this page alone includes: rich people, more people, old people, suburban people, immigrants, communal people, single people, likely subscribers to Architectural Digest, newly urbanized poor people, and more.

Too Many People for the Planet? Or Too Many People Clustered in Some Places?

According to recent United Nations estimates, global population is increasing by approximately 80 million — the size of Germany — each year. Although fertility rates have declined in most areas of the world, population growth continues to be fueled by high levels of fertility, particularly in Asia and Africa. Continued high fertility in many developing regions, coupled with low fertility in more-developed regions, means that 80 percent of the global population now lives in less-developed nations.

In The Environmental Implications of Population Dynamics (Rand, 2000) Lori Hunter identifies some of the complex interactions between population growth and the environment. Assuming constant rates of production, per capita land requirements for food production will near the limits of arable land over the course of the twenty-first century. 

Likewise, continued population growth occurs in the context of an accelerating demand for water: Global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995, more than double the rate of population growth. The ways in which populations are distributed across the globe also affect the availability of fresh water, for example, because large populations place extreme burdens on the ability of aquifers to replenish at rates that exceed withdrawal.

Furthermore, human migration is at an all-time high: the net flow of international migrants is approximately 2 million to 4 million per year and, in 1996, 125 million people lived outside their country of birth. Much of this migration follows a rural-to-urban pattern, and, as a result, the Earth's population is also increasingly urbanized. in addition, the global population has both the largest cohort of young people (age 24 and under) and the largest proportion of elderly in history.

The Earth's Carrying Capacity: Or Too Many Rich People, Consuming Too Much Stuff?

Click image for larger view
There are a couple of common ways of measuring the overall environmental impact of representative individuals within each nation, or by individuals based upon more detailed information about consumption habits and income. One measure is an estimate of median resource consumption of representative citizens of various nations. The World Watch chart at the right is one familiar estimate.

As one might expect, the number of hectares needed to support a typical American is far higher than is required to support a typical Indian. As developing nations get richer, and as they consume more animal protein, drive more automobiles, and utilize more air conditioning, the estimates for those nations will rise quickly. The worry, of course, is that while a rising standard of living is the central aim of developmental economics, the rise in mean levels of resource consumption globally will accelerate the pace of ecological overshoot - reaching a point at which actual resource consumption outpaces available planetary resources.

Ecological Footprint: How Big is Yours?

click image to use the calculator
The Ecological footprint of individuals, like the more familiar carbon footprint measure, is an estimate of an individual's environmental impact, based on more detailed information about the lifestyle and income of particular persons. It is an aggregate measure designed to capture environmental impacts beyond an individual's carbon footprint. While many variables might go into such an estimate and some judgments of how each one is weighted in the aggregate measure, the purpose is to reveal some insight into how much draw on the planet's resources overall by estimating how many planets having the Earth's resource capacity would be necessary to sustain the entire Earth's population at the level of resource consumption that an individual of a specific lifestyle uses. 

While calculators of this sort provide only a very rough approximation, they are nonetheless indicative of the fact that consensus estimates of typical US and EU levels of resource consumption show that 5-6 planet equivalents would be needed to sustain all of us at the median level of consumption for persons in the more affluent societies. Measure your footprint using one of the many calculators found on the web by clicking on the Image on the right. 

Well-being and Resource Consumption: An Imperfect Correlation

click the tiny image for a larger view
Never mind for the moment how the creators of this graphic to the right estimated well-being. (See a discussion of HDI here). What is important for now is the fact that even those who are by disciplinary background inclined to judge how well we are doing using income and wealth as proxies still think that there are good reasons to believe that well-being, and even various comparative metrics of standard of living, do not exhibit a linear relation relation to resource consumption.

The chart on the left is from the United Nations Development Programme, dated 2006. Compare the US ecological footprint with Norway's, for example. Both are at comparable positions on the well-being axis but the ecological footprints are vastly divergent.  Well, actually, Norway is a bit ahead of the US on the well-being axis.

An even more striking comparison perhaps is between Japan and the US. Again, they are closely nested on the well-being axis, with Japan only a little behind, but with a far more significant difference in ecological footprint. 

Other measures of well-being are likely to yield different results, but the point remains: not all improvements in standard of living or measures of well-being correlate with an upward rise in resource consumption - but most likely some correlation is generally found only until some threshold level of resource consumption is reached. After that, well-being and resource utilization often diverge sharply.

Countries Growing Old Before Getting Rich

click image for a larger view
Demographers have a phrase for a global trend: we are getting old before getting rich. This isn't the usual complaint that youth is wasted on the young. The point is that increases in life expectancy are resulting in the rise of average population age. While that is a very good thing in terms of success in basic public health interventions, particularly improvements in sanitation and prevention of death before the age of 7, the longer term consequence is that countries can expect fewer adults active in the workforce in proportion to the elderly population no longer economically productive.The point is often put in terms of a nation's dependency ratio, as the graph on the right portrays. But the dependency ratio, of course, is only a part of the story. For an understanding of what a high dependency ratio means for a nation's sovereign debt and investment grade status, and ultimately, the well-being of its citizens, we need to know about it economic resources and alternate needs for capital expenditures. A useful discussion of some of the many variables can be found at, where the World Bank graphic was posted.

In terms of social policy, the challenge is to find the necessary public or private resources for supporting a growing share of the population who are elderly. The problem is a well-known and widely discussed one in relatively well-off countries such as Japan and the US, but even here budget projections for old-age pensioners and social security recipients are not encouraging. If that is a problem in relatively rich countries, imagine how big the problem is likely to be in developing countries where the economic basis for supporting more population in need of medical care, social services, and income transfers drawn from the wages of fewer younger workers.

While demographers have focused on the phenomenon for quite a few years, it seems to be all the rage in the popular press, especially with regard to China. Consider the following quote from the April 21, 2012 issue of The Economist: 

"This trend will have profound financial and social consequences. Most obviously, it means China will have a bulge of pensioners before it has developed the means of looking after them. Unlike the rest of the developed world, China will grow older before it gets rich. Currently, 8.2% of China's total population is over 65. The equivalent figure in America is 13%. By 2050, China's share will be 26%, higher than in America."

The Dynamics of rising and falling birth rates, an aging Planet, economic growth, and resource demand

A recent forecast appears in a November 2012 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The report, titled “Looking to 2060: Long-Term Global Growth Prospects,” estimates that the dependency ratio - the number of people over the age of 65 for each 100 people of working ages between 15 to 64 - will grow considerably around the world. In 2010, The figure for the UK was 25.1 and 19.9 for the US, but the ratio for each is expected to rise to almost 40 for both nations by 2045. In 2010, China had just 11.3 people over 65 for each 100 people in the working-age population, but it is estimated that it will be in the same range as the US and UK in 2045. By 2060 Germany and Italy are expected to have old-age ratios above 55. The graph on the left shows estimates of dependency ratios of the Eurozone through 2060.

The sheer numbers will be drain on economic growth for these developed countries, but the pace of change in countries such as China will make planning and adjustment that much more difficult. According to the report, the more rapid aging of the population in China “partly explains why India and Indonesia will overtake China’s growth rate in less than a decade.” These predictions are of course predicated upon assumptions about birth rates, but the underlying message is that absent increase in birth rates, economic growth which fuels rise in standard of living will falter, and yet on the other hand, a rise in birth rates brings its own set of challenges in the form of an increased demand for resources such as food, energy, and water.

A real dilemma is taking shape: no growth in birth rates, then more dependency, less economic growth, and lower rises in standard of living. Or, growth in birth rate, more short term economic growth, and more pressure on resources necessary for a sustainable form of growth and improvement in standard of living.

Recommendations for the Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests 

Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (FAO):

This webpage provides an overview of the incentives and processes required to create the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VG). 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the initiative in 2009 as a means to establish internationally accepted principles and standards that would help facilitate environmental stewardship, socio-political development, and economic growth. The webpage was produced by the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, an international network of food producers, indigenous groups, and other active parties. 

The final form of the VG – as endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2013 – can be found on the FAO website, along with additional information and resources.

Much of this stuff is technical in nature and is designed as a kind of manual of best practices. But there are some big-picture considerations that this work and other similar reports highlight. 

For example, traditional peoples who lack a robust system of land and rely upon communal pools of shared resources tend to produce the classic cases known as the tragedy of the commons. Overfishing is the paradigm case. If all are allowed to fish a common body of water and take as much as each wants a likely result is that at some point overfishing will deplete fish stocks. Market-oriented economists thus recommend the implementation of some sort of price mechanism, such as permits, or when possible, end common ownership regimes entirely so that resource extraction decisions are made by individuals who are motivated by self-interest to use those resources sparingly. 

Indeed, much of the world lacks robust property laws regulating either land or resources such as water. In many instances, access to water, for example, whether from deep underground aquifers, or from surface sources such as lakes and rivers, is nothing more than allowing whomever gets there first to take all they want for whatever uses, in many cases with little regard for how much is left for others. That sort of property regime, if one can call it a property regime at all, is ideal for various foreign investors seeking unlimited access to resources such as water at bargain prices. Ironically, while it is often claimed that the lack of the rule of law -  a well-developed and transparent system of rules that makes clear assignments of rights, responsibilities, and remedies -  is a major impediment to economic development, in at least some cases a great part of the attraction for foreign capital is precisely the absence of the rule of law.

Report on Trends in Meeting Key Environmental Objectives 

Global Environment Outlook-5 Report (UNEP):

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released the GEO-5 report as one of the most comprehensive scientific assessments of contemporary trends in climate change, chemical and waste treatment, and water, land, and natural resource management. Viewed as a preliminary measure for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as the Rio+20 Conference) that took place two weeks later, the report serves as a literal report card for global progress towards 90 of the UN's most important environmental objectives. The results are discouraging, if not shocking - "significant progress" has been made only with respect to eliminating ozone-depleting substances, eliminating lead from gasoline, increasing research related to marine pollution, and, to a lesser extent, increasing equitable access to better quality water.

For more information on the report and its findings, please see the corresponding UNEP website.

World Resources Institute: Vital Signs 2012

click image to see publication details
The 2012 World Watch Institute edition of its Vital Signs surveys some of the most significant global trends affecting the environment. For example, they track:
  • global energy intensity increases and the rise in global oil consumption, 
  • the fall of  fossil fuel consumption subsidies,  
  • the rapid ascent of global wind power capacity and solar photovoltaic generating capacity, 
  • the peak production of passenger cars and light trucks, 
  • the increase in global biofuel production, 
  • the prevalence of  organic farming methods, per capita meat consumption in the developing world, 
  • the extraordinary growth in fish farming (50-fold since the 1950s, now accounting for 40 percent of total fish catch), and
  • the rise in the number of overweight people age 15 or older worldwide (up 25 percent since 2002, to 1.93 billion).

The Built Environment and its Enormous Impact on Humans and the Natural Environment Union Square Market, NYC
The concept of the built environment is somewhat elastic in its definition, but the underlying idea is clear. It is s term used to identify the human-made features of one's environment in order to better understand the impact the creation and organization of human communities has on its inhabitants and the natural environment in which it is situated - and which is profoundly altered by its construction. A definition I found from Wikipedia some years ago (no longer quite the same in current iterations) is illustrative of the general notion:

"Built environment refers to the man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity, ranging in scale from personal shelter to neighborhoods to the large-scale civic surroundings.The term is widely used to describe the interdisciplinary field of study which addresses the design, construction, management and use of these man-made surroundings and their relationship to the human activities which take place within them over time."

One might expand the notion of a built environment to encompass the ways in which a community makes physical alterations in its natural setting in order to get its food, secure and manage its water and wastes, shelter its inhabitants, and organize the flow of movement for various purposes such as commerce, political participation, entertainment, and civic activities. Whether one lives in densely populated zones with agricultural and other resources being brought in from surrounding regions or in sparsely settled communities determines the course of human interaction, the prospects for health, the impact on the natural environment, and so much more.

Narrower definitions sometimes appear in discussions of architecture, for example, when the focus is on design of discrete physical structures and the purpose of inquiry is limited to how that structure affects the well-being of those it shelters and the condition of the immediate surrounding environment. These narrow definitions sometimes found in the architectural literature thus differ from the ones favored by urban planners who are interested in the larger patterning and clustering of buildings within a larger context of a humanly constructed environment. Definitions then reflect the purposes of inquiry and reasonably vary according to the focality of interests.

The impact of increasing home size on energy demand

The US Energy Information Administration examined the American trend toward larger personal residences and its energy implications. They found that homes built since 1990 are on average 27% larger than homes built in earlier decades.  According to EIA's 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), "the stock of homes built in the 1970s and 1980s averages less than 1,800 square feet. That average increases to 2,200 square feet for homes built in the 1990s and to 2,465 square feet for homes built in the 2000s." In addition, the ceiling height of many new homes. has risen, with only 17% of homes built in the 1970s having higher than the traditional eight-foot ceilings and 52% in homes built in the 2000s.

As square footage increases, along with ceiling height, the burden on heating and cooling equipment rises. Bigger homes also mean greater lighting requirements and it increases the likelihood of more high-energy use appliances such as refrigerator increases. On the other hand, newer, larger homes tend to have more energy efficient appliances and better insulation. 

The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Contribution of Buildings

The UNEP report, Buildings and Climate Change observes that "It is estimated that at present, buildings contribute as much as one third of total global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the use of fossil fuels during their operational phase." 

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) attributes to buildings of various sorts in the US 41% of the energy used in the US in 2010 and  estimates based on EIA data indicate that the building sector accounts for as much as 48% of the annual GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in the US, with 36% of the direct energy related GHG emissions and an additional 8-12% of total GHG emissions related to the production of materials used in building construction.

Home Alone: Getting Rich and Going Solo

In Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, By Eric Klinenberg, some of the following findings bear on the environmental footprint of the global affluent, especially salient in light of how much energy expenditure is associated with buildings:
  • More people live alone now than at any other time in history. 
  • One of the primary factors in the choice to live alone is its economically feasibility. Affluent people around the world tend to make the choice in greater numbers whenever they can
  • Japan, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States
  • 47 percent of households in Sweden have one occupant, as opposed to 28 percent in the United States
  • But in prosperous American cities — such as Washington, DC and New York City - nearly 1 in 2 households are single-person households
  • Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.
  • Economic prosperity is one important factor in the choice; the existence of a social safety net that makes living alone possible even when individual means are limited.

The Environmental Consequences of Suburban Sprawl

Click image for Source: Economix.blogs NYTimes
The Sierra Club defines suburban sprawl as the "irresponsible, often poorly-planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools and drives up taxes." Their White Paper on Suburban Sprawl provides a fairly comprehensive portrait of some of its most significant impacts. For example:

"Our urban areas are expanding at about twice the rate that the population is growing. It is important to remember that if there are multiple causes of sprawl, then their impact is multiplied together, so that if population increases by 50%, and density decreases by 50%, land consumed will increase not by 100%, but by 300%. So poor land use makes the impact of population growth worse, and vice-versa."

Moreover, the report points that "many communities are subsidizing new development in the form of new roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and emergency services" often under "misconception that all job growth is always good."

Another summary of key environmental impacts is available from the National Resources Defense Council.

NASA's website has a discussion of some of the consequences of urban outgrowth for watersheds, wildlife, and forestry. See their reconstruction of the growth of Baltimore, Maryland, over the last 200 years. (The U.S. Geological Survey used historical records as well as Landsat satellite data to create this sequence).

Sustainable Cities and The Importance of Population Density

A mantra in certain environmental design circles is that "Compact living is sustainable living." There are many reasons for the claims the mantra embodies. High-density cities encourage reductions in daily travel for purchasing amenities and engaging in social activities. That saves energy, makes the development of public transportation more efficient, controls suburban sprawl and its attendent land degradation, and much more.

A 2009 book, Designing High-Density Cities for Social and Environmental Sustainability, edited by Edward Ng, offers a collection of essays by experts in several architectural and planning perspectives. The essays examine a range of environmental and social issues, and each argues that high-density cities are a sustainable solution.

Websites Devoted to Demographic Trends and Other Information About the Evolution of US Cities

click image to go to the blog
Richard Florida, professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, runs the Atlantic Monthly's blog on cities. He has written for the The Atlantic for many years and he has predicted and tracked the renewal and growth of urban areas and the parallel boom and subsequent economic and population declines of ex-urban areas in the US long before most policy makers (assuming many have even yet) glimpsed that anything important was happening.

Florida's own insight is keen, but he has been a keen observer of the work of others whose insights into emerging demographic patterns are impressive. One such person is demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institution. 

Check out Frey's excellent analysis of trends in Population Growth in Metro America since 1980. Frey has created useful demographic media for use by educators, policy makers and the general public. Two of his websites are: 
  • "CensusScope is an easy-to-use tool for investigating U.S. demographic trends, brought to you by the Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN) at the University of Michigan." 
  • "The Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN) is a university-based organization that creates demographic media (such as user guides, web sites, and hands-on classroom computer materials) that make U.S. census data accessible to policymakers, educators, the media, and informed citizens."

Poverty, Children, Environmental Hazards, and Megacities

click image to get the report
2012 UNICEF report, Children in an Urban World offers a striking picture of the future of many children in the increasingly inhospitable urban environments of the world's mega-cities and other large urban areas.

A couple of its findings are especially noteworthy. By 2050 more than 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, more than a third of them in slum conditions. This unprecedented concentration of the global poor in slums poses significant new challenges for those committed to eradicating the scourge of crushing poverty in childhood, and the negative impact on well being in adulthood that accompanies it.
Historically, health outcomes as well as other measures of well-being  such as educational attainment, access to clean water, improved sanitation, and better nutrition have tended to accompany urbanization.  However, the UNICEF report suggests that in the future the developmental prospects and lives of children in urban slums may be far worse than the those of children in impoverished rural inhabitants of low income nations today. 

Among the more hopeful observations in the UNICEF report, however, are clues to what can be done. For example, there are estimates of the impact of water and sanitation improvements that can produce as much as $28 US dollars in health and economic benefits for every US dollar invested. Much of that benefit will accrue to the world’s youngest, poorest, most vulnerable people.  

The Ecological Footprint

The concept of an ecological footprint, like the more familiar carbon footprint, attempts to estimate how much of the global resources individuals use to sustain their lifestyles. As you might guess, the planet is "overshooting' the supply of resources available to support human life on a sustainable basis.  In this short video, the creator of the footprint concept explains how the accounting process works and the assumptions figure in its estimates. The ecological footprint video can be seen by clicking the image on the left.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint Essay example

885 Words4 Pages

Because carbon footprints are such hot topics in the news these days, it's an ideal topic for this particular paper. As concerns about global warming and potential climate change have continued to evolve the term "carbon footprint" has become ingrained in many people's consciousness. Though the large Fortune 500 companies focus on reduction of their own carbon footprints, individuals can help in their own small way as well.
But what is a carbon footprint? Basically, carbon footprints are defined as the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are produced when it comes to supporting human activities (and which are expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide) (What is a carbon footprint?). Driving a car, heating one's house, even buying…show more content…

This isn't to suggest that industrial farming is healthier; just that it leaves less of an organic footprint than its organic counterpart.
But what can people do to ensure that they're not leaving a larger carbon footprint? One suggestion is to plant a vegetable garden – Prieznitz (2008) goes so far as to suggest tearing up one's entire backyard and turning the entire acreage into a veggie garden. This is because there would be no lawn mowing (meaning no gasoline used) and no chemicals used that make green lawns (and that end up contaminating groundwater). While Priesnitz's suggestion is a little over-the-top – few people have time to cultivate and maintain an entire backyard of vegetables – using part of a backyard to grow vegetables would reduce a person's carbon footprint (not to mention would help feed that person's family for awhile). Priesnitz suggests that any grass remaining can be maintained with a push mower.
Other ways to reduce carbon footprints are to energy-proof a home (Reysa, 2008). Gary Reysa points out that home energy improvements not only save a family on energy bills, but are also easy and inexpensive to implement.
For one thing, simple lifestyle changes can save kilowatts of electricity. One of these involves turning off the lights and electrical appliances when leaving a room. Shutting off computers can save watts – turning them off at night, and having them hibernate during the day if not in use is a good way to save energy

Show More


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *