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What is an Ecological Footprint? - Definition, Calculation & Facts

Instructor: Dominic Corsini

Dominic Corsini has an extensive educational background with a B.S. in Secondary Biology and General Science with a Minor in Environmental Education, an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership, an M.S. in Biology, and a K-12 Principal Certification Program. Corsini has experience as a high school Life, Earth, Biology, Ecology, and Physical Science teacher.

This lesson addresses the concept of an ecological footprint. It includes definitions, examples, illustrations, and methods for reduction. There are bolded key terms and a brief quiz with explanations included.

Human Footprints

How many people live in your town? What about in your state or country? Do you have a guess? What if I asked you how many people live on Earth? Would you have an idea?

The answer to this question is around 7 billion. That's a lot of people! Every one of those people leaves an ecological footprint on Earth. An ecological footprint is a way to measure the demand placed on nature. Another way of looking at it would be by asking, how much land would be required for your survival if the entire world population lived your lifestyle? The number answering this question is your ecological footprint, and it can be calculated.

Determining Your Footprint

A quick Internet search of the phrase 'ecological footprint calculator' will uncover several sites where you're able to measure your own personal footprint. The calculation itself is complex, so walking through the steps within a text lesson is unnecessary.

However, should you decide to determine your footprint, the calculation takes into account items such as transportation habits, home size, heating/cooling sources, food consumption, energy usage, water sources, recycling and habits (to name a few). Essentially, calculating your footprint means analyzing your lifestyle.

With whatever calculator you use, low calculated numbers are better. As a generality, here's an example of how different countries break down.

Global Footprints
Global Footprints

This picture is very revealing. It indicates that much of the world lives unsustainably. In other words, people are consuming resources faster than they can be replenished. From an environmental or ecological perspective, this is bad. It means the world we know cannot persist in its current state. It means we need to change our lifestyles and focus on sustainability.

Our Lifestyles

Sustainability refers to a manner of living in which resources are able to last for a long time or replenish themselves. It's kind of like budgeting. Suppose you receive $100 per week and are free to use it however you choose. If you spend $50 per day, you'll run out of money before mid-week. That isn't sustainable. On the other hand, if you spend $10 per day, you'll have enough money to last the entire week (with some reserve). That is sustainable.

Today, the world population is so large that the lifestyles many people lead aren't sustainable. Our Earthly resources are being consumed at a higher rate than they can be replenished. To assess the sustainability of individual lifestyles, we must examine our footprints.

Evidence of High Footprint Calculations

How do we know people are living unsustainably? What are the signs? Well, in the scientific community it's very clear. Our global reserves of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) are rapidly being depleted. Fossil fuels are energy sources derived from long dead organic material. These fuels take millions of years to form. People are consuming them much quicker than they can be replaced.

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