As we progress through this current wave of increased environmental awareness and advocacy, we notice the development of numerous mechanisms specifically designed to evaluate the ‘green’ status of a person, family, or even an entire institution.
One commonly utilized tool (in its many versions) is designed to measure an individual’s ‘ecological footprint’, that is, the amount of land required to sustain a particular lifestyle. Of course, this quantity will vary from person to person, depending on specific housing, transportation, energy use, and food consumption patterns, among other activities that may impact the overall condition of Earth.
In 2008, an individual’s average ecological footprint in North America ranged from 6.43 (in Canada) to 7.19 (in the U.S.). Other values include 3.94 in Poland, 1.72 in Jamaica, 1.21 in Sri Lanka, with values reaching as low as 0.5-0.6 in places such as Afghanistan and Haiti. These numbers represent the number of hectares per individual needed to support the way each person lives.
In the past, footprint values have been divided into ‘high’ impact categories (requiring more land) for developed nations, and ‘low’ impact categories for less developed countries; however, there are a couple of reasons why this distinction does not necessarily hold true today.
Once developing parts of the world (such as China) began to establish significant industrial activity, increasing their ecological impact. At the same time, some economically stable countries are moving in the opposite direction in an attempt to mitigate years of environmental damage and degradation through implementation of green technologies and other initiatives to reduce environmental harm.
Which leads me to these questions: Exactly how practical is the ecological footprint as a guide or tool when it comes to environmental initiatives? What are the drawbacks of such a measure of sustainability?
Several shortcomings of this concept have been noted in practice and even in academia. This first issue is likely more applicable to people living in so-called ‘developed’ nations: misinterpretation of the overall footprint concept. If you were to type in ‘Ecological Footprint Calculator’ into your Google search engine, the number of responses is almost overwhelming. (My favourite is the "Earth day Network Footprint Calculator", just for the record)
Interestingly, many of these websites do not provide a ‘how-to’ (if you will) on ways to effectively reduce footprint values. If a person (or a family, or a corporation) made an active effort to reduce their ecological footprint based on a value calculated through one of these websites, they may be encouraged to make changes to certain aspects of their lifestyle. Perhaps a suburban family realizes that their footprint will decrease if they replace their under utilized SUV with a compact car, or perhaps even a hybrid or electric car. They soon discover that not only are they helping to reduce their ecological footprint, but – would you look at that! – they have also spent significantly less money on gas in the past few months. What better to do with this extra money than go on a family vacation – one that involves hopping on a plane, flying across the ocean to Hawaii, and making that ecological footprint larger than it was before. Sure, the irony seems obvious on paper, but it happens more often than you’d like to believe (unintentionally, of course).
Another problem that is again more relevant to regions with larger ecological footprints stems from what has been presented as a ‘human rights’ issue. Sounds bizarre, but this is the philosophy of many working people. Consider the Hawaii example above. It is obvious that plane travel emits quite a lot of carbon emissions per person, and thus does not contribute to a reduction of this family’s ecological footprint. But the adults in this family work hard, and can spend their money how they choose, right? Essentially, many feel as though they are ‘entitled’ to vacations and other luxuries, despite the impact on their carbon footprint. And this makes complete sense. After all, I wouldn’t be pleased either if I was pressured to make decisions based on environmental impact instead of personal interest.
These are largely societal issues that are rooted in the concept of disposable income and the freedom to choose what we do with our income. Until we get to the point where we are collectively willing to put environmental sustainability before our desire to plan that annual family vacation, these issues will persist.
The evidence will be in the footprint.