All materials come at the cost of land - the land to provide the resources we consume, and the land needed to
absorb the wastes produced from our manufacturing and other processes (solid, liquid and gaseous wastes).
Ecological Footprint Analysis (see below) reveals that the average American footprint is roughly 25 acres per
person, which means that, if there are roughly 30 billion acres of ecologically productive land left in the world
(a number that decreases daily), then the earth could support (30 billion acres / 25 acres/person =) 1.2 billion
In terms of our footprint, therefore, the earth is already over-populated. That is, the earth could sustain
roughly 1.2 billion people at the level of consumption and waste production of the average American. It is
therefore not possible for the developing world to achieve the American “quality of life”.
If we wish to be fair to 6 billion people, then we must all try to live in a footprint LESS THAN (30 billion
acres / 6 billion people =) 5 acres per person. Why “less than”? We have not yet allowed for other species!
We note that because our consumption and waste patterns combined with human population levels have
exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity footprint-wise, it is not surprising that our life-sustaining systems are
being stressed -
loss of rainforests,
huge declines in aquatic life and phytoplankton populations,
decline in soil fertility and health,
salinization and desertification of our soils,
loss of freshwater,
significant loss of biodiversity, particularly in the plant gene pool on which our agriculture depends,
loss of farmers (especially in the U.S.),
global climate change and instability,
continued human population growth coupled with increasing consumption,
and the threat of global ecological collapse (Nemesis Effect).
WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. Reduce our Ecological Footprint - set a new trend! (more info and links below)
2. Keep in mind that we are mining our soils - without soil, we cannot grow food. Although the World
Futures conference has hosted talks on such things as cloning meat tissue in vats of nutrient solution so that
we no longer need farms to grow meat, and blue-green algae and yeasts are already being developed as future
large-scale food sources, all of these things are energy-intensive (another problematic issue) and fail to address
the underlying problem of soil loss. In 1997, Dr. John Jeavons of Ecology Action reported, based on his
investigating USDA records and other world monitoring of soil loss, that we had 27-45 years of topsoil left
world-wide. Assuming he may be a little off, that’s still roughly 50 years of topsoil left worldwide.
3. Don’t forget the soil (am I repeating myself here?): Soil is extremely important in the context of materials
because (a) if we don’t have any left, we don’t eat and there isn’t anyone around to make materials! and (b)
many of our materials are “grown” by nature:
Rubber , for example, originated from latex gathered from trees in South America. After Henry
Ford’s disastrous loss of his Connecticut-sized rubber plantation “Fordlandia” in an overnight blitz of a lethal
leaf blight, clones of the highest-yielding trees were exported to Britain and then planted in Malaysia and
Indonesian countries, where they still grow today.... all clones from the same genetic stock, extremely fragile
as an ecosystem. Leaf blight cannot cross the ocean easily to hit this area and dies in 4 days without a host, so
the 5-day-long shipping trips have successfully thwarted its passage overseas - so far. Our love-affair with the
automobile would be devastated overnight, however, if some clever terrorist took an airlines flight direct from
South America to any one of these plantations in Indonesia and turned loose the leaf blight. Further, as
ethnobotanist Wade Davis calculates, it is not possible for developing countries to achieve the American
“quality of life” in part because there isn’t enough natural rubber to go around and we have no really good,
inexpensive synthetic substitute for it. Further still, by tapping the trees, we assume the supply is
inexhaustible, but in reality, we are gradually depleting the soils in these plantations - eventually they will not
support this level of growth and latex production.
Biofuels , as another example, are the latest rage for farmers to earn an extra buck. Made from corn,
soybeans and other such crops, whether ethanol, methanol or biodiesel, we are again mining the soil to
produce a material that will be combusted and therefore exacerbate global climate change. Proper care of the
soil necessitates composting and returning all matter grown to the soil. Nature works in closed loop cycles.
Soil in the U.S. was a gift of the last ice age and fairly recent geological activity. Australia, by comparison,
has had no major geological activity in some 65 million years - note that Australia is mostly desert. This is
why. Once ruined, it is very difficult to restore and rebuild healthy soil. Most of our nutrients have now run
off into the ocean where they are further contaminated with toxic run-off from industries along our rivers (you
may have heard of the huge “dead zone” in the gulf at the mouth of the Mississippi River due to chemical run-
off from agriculture and other industries). The fossil fuel cost of dredging these nutrients from the oceans,
desalinating them, and returning them to the land is enormous.
Wheatboard , as a final example, is a kind of “eco-wallboard” made from agricultural “waste” of
wheat stalks, once the grain has been removed. We often think we are clever in coming up with such clever
material products that seem win-win: all natural, biodegradable (someday), non-toxic, and extra money for
our farmers who can barely eek out a living. Yet, as with biofuels, wheatboard, riceboard, and other such
products come to us at the expense of mining our land. Chemical fertilizers are not a viable replacement for
the organic loam produced by composting these “agricultural wastes” and returning them to the soil.
4. Re-Design with no toxicity in mind! Architect Bill McDonough set the precedent for redesign in his
landmark work with the Ciba-Geigy textile factory in which he asked, “If we use our MINDS as a filter rather
than putting filters on our smokestacks and effluent, and we eliminate all mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine
disrupters, neurotoxins, persistent toxins of any kind, etc., can we still make a quality product?” Teamed up
with a chemist, they had to eliminate 7,962 of the 8,000 chemicals Ciba-Geigy regularly employed. They
successfully recreated the entire fabric line with only 38 non-toxic chemicals. The water leaving the factory
was actually cleaner than it was when it came in! THIS is a good example of ecological design. Of course, we
haven’t yet investigated the energy input or the raw materials, but it is significantly more ecologically
sustainable having eliminated the nasties!
5. Use LOCAL materials for sustainability: This idea is exemplified especially well by Pliny Fisk’s Center for
Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas. Pliny’s crew will visit any location and figure out
how to build using the materials found there - to eliminate the need to import materials. He will use the local
soil, rocks, sand, volcanic ash, broken sea shells, glass, rubber tires... whatever is in abundance there... the
idea is to fiddle with it to develop an acceptable building material.
6. Purchase locally-grown organic foods or grow as much of your own food (using sustainable organic
practices) yourself: in this way, you not only decrease your Ecological Footprint, but you support practices
that regenerate the soil on which you and all life depends.
7. Keep in mind that when we talk about “sustainable materials”, we most often are referring to “eco-
efficiency”, which is only one of the three issues that need to be addressed to achieve sustainability. Eco-
efficiency or “paring down” on resource consumption must be balanced with “caring” for the environment and
“sharing” in a socio-economic sense. “Green” buildings and products are what we all should have, and
could have - we need to find approaches to making the things we need most to live a sufficiently high
quality of life at a lower footprint that utilize economics as a tool rather than as our Master. This is a
challenge to which I have only my personal example (and that of a few others) as one possible answer. To
quote Ivan Illich, “We don’t need an Alternative Economics - we need an alternative TO economics.” There
are many ways of “thinking outside of the box” and getting around the frequent traps that keep us bound to
letting economics make our decisions for us, but you have to take the initiative to think about it and take
8. Remember that the U.S. sets trends that are largely copied world-wide. We are hogging more than our fair
share of the world - in effect, “mooching” off of the many “developing” countries. When you consider the fact
that the life support systems of the planet are already in decline, there is no way to provide the people in these
developing countries with the opportunity to achieve the American “quality of life”. Inequalities and
injustices will only get worse as population grows and the desire to consume more continues to grow with it.
To offset this trend, we need to take the lead in reducing our Ecological Footprint, nation-wide. We can only
begin ourselves, as individuals, and teach other why we are doing this. Even something as simple as small-
scale organic farming methods are important: third world countries seeking to feed their huge populations are
now turning to industrial agriculture when their soils are already poor. This method will lead to continued
degradation of their soils until they will not be able to feed anyone!
9. Learning to live - footprint-wise - within our Nation’s boundaries (our physical footprint - that is within
however many acres of ecologically productive land are left in the U.S.) is critical. Other countries must learn
to do the same if we’re going to be fair to everyone. There are tradeoffs: high footprint + low population or
low footprint and high population. 25 acres/person is excessive, but if we choose to live with that level of
consumption and waste production, we Americans should limit our population accordingly - this will decrease
the amount of terrorism and such directed at us as we pull back from our mooching off of those who want their
fair share. Austraila is the only country with an equally high ecological footprint largely because they have to
import so much. By contrast, Ethiopia and Bangledesh have the lowest per capita ecological footprints at
about 1.5 acres/person, however this is too low - you will find a corresponding undesirable quality of
life. Better to strive for something inbetween.
10. As a start, see what it would take to live within the footprint of your state’s boundaries. In PA, take the
number of acres and divide it by our state population (a steady 12 million), and it works out that we have
about 2.5 acres per person available. That means, if our actual footprint is 25 acres per person, we have the
choice of decreasing our footprint to 2.5 acres or decreasing our population by a factor of 10. Think about it.
Charity begins at home... but so does real change. Our “material world” is jeopardizing our entire future -
let’s keep the limits in mind as we move ahead and make choices regarding what is or is not “sustainable”
Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, by Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1996).
Sharing Nature’s Interest: Ecological Footprints as an Indicator of Sustainability , by Nicky
Chambers, Craig Simmons & Mathis Wackernagel (Sterling: Earthscan Publications, Ltd., 2000)
Carrying Capacity : The total population of a particular species that a given area of land (habitat)
can sustain - that is, support indefinitely - without threat of ecological or ecosystem collapse. [Question: how
many people can the Earth sustain? At what quality of life? What about leaving room for other species?]
Footprint : The area of land occupied by some object (e.g. a house, or a road, or your shoe!) Units:
Ecological Footprint: The amount of land needed to provide for all of your resource
consumption and waste absorption = food + transportation (of goods + people) + energy + materials/goods +
housing + services + natural environment needed to absorb/recycle all pollution & waste products; minimal
provision for other species.
[Units: area = m2 or ft2 or acres (1 acre = 43,560 ft2) or hectares ( = ha = 10,000 m2 = 2.47 acres)]
Average American Ecological Footprint: approx. 25 acres per person.
Your Fair Earthshare: To be fair to all of the human beings on the planet, we should all
agree to live within our “fair earthshare”, which is simply calculated by taking all of the ecologically
productive land that is available and dividing it by the total world population: approx. 30 billion acres land /
6 billion people = approx. 5 acres/person.
Note: a. Your Fair Earthshare assumes that only humans (no other animal species) inhabit the land.
b. The amount of ecologically productive land left is shrinking.
c. The total world human population is growing
d. Human mass is replacing biomass and other species.
e. Therefore we are losing the resilience and robustness of our diverse ecosystems.
f. Thus, your Fair Earthshare is decreasing as we speak while the average American Ecological Footprint continues to grow, and people in many of the developing countries are aspiring to the same level of consumption as that which we now enjoy in the U.S.
Number of Earths Needed to be Sustainable : If we are currently each entitled to live within an
ecological footprint of 5 acres (= Your Fair Earthshare), and yet we are - as Americans - enjoying a 25 acre
footprint, then, we are living at 5 times the level to which we are entitled. Therefore, if all of the world
achieved a 25-acre footprint, we would need a total of five planet earths to be sustainable .
How to calculate Ecological Footprint :
1. Assumptions (net effect - underestimates footprint):
a. assumes current industrial processes (e.g. ag harvests) are sustainable
b. includes only basic services of nature (e.g. wood produced per acre; CO2 absorbed by plants)
c. No double-counting if same area of land provides two or more services (e.g. energy use of industry is partially included in embedded energy costs of materials)
d. ecological productivity is estimated for 8 different ecosystems + some ocean areas
2. Use economic tables and other sources to estimate total consumption of X by a particular population
(e.g. Americans in the U.S.). Be sure to correct for trade: imports - exports
3. Estimate the amount of land needed for the production of each major consumption item I = average
annual consumption (usually in kg per person) by the average annual yield or productivity (usually in
kg/hectare = kg/ha ), being careful to include the total inputs embodied in any given product (e.g.
furniture depends on yields from different trees, finishes from petroleum and other products, nails,
screws, machining equipment... all must be accounted for in footprint).
4. The total ecological footprint is found by summing up the footprints of all these items I and dividing
by the total population N consuming or utilizing them (e.g. the ecological footprint of the U.S. will
be calculated using annual U.S. statistics for consumption, yields and population):
Critical Resources/Issues (with references):
1. Overview of key issues (soil, air, water, forests, etc.): Sustaining the Earth: An
Integrated Approach , by G. Tyler Miller (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998); more
general reading which includes socio-political aspects is Thom Hartmann’s The Last Hours of
Ancient Sunlight (NY, Three Rivers Press, 1999); a fictional story that gets to the core issues is
Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B , together with his books Ishmael, My Ishmael and
2. Fossil Fuels & Energy Issues - prospects and alternatives, see Energy Synopsis at Jay
Hanson’s www.dieoff.com ; H.T. Odum’s eMergy analysis method is put to use here; note that most
combustion fuels exacerbate global climate change and many “clean” alternatives depend on these
combustibles to be manufactured. Our current energy dependency is a huge security risk.
3. Topsoil - Estimates: under 50 years of topsoil left worldwide at current depletion rates
(which crop biofuels would exacerbate). See Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World
; Vernon G. Carter & Tom Dale’s Topsoil and Civilization ; The decline of each major
civilization correlates with soil degradation and the need to import consumables: why haven’t we
learned from the past? We’re finally forced to face it because there is no “new land” to which we can
4. Food Security Strategies that reduce Ecological Footprint and employ Ecological
Accounting: See the Land Institute’s Sunshine Research Farm Report (www.landinstitute.org) and
Ecology Action’s work in the Third World at www.growbiointensive.org ; Also Community
Supported Agriculture efforts (CSA’s) to build strong local economy and healthy food production.
5. Food Issues : www.purefood.org (pro-organic); www.purefoods.org (pro-biotech)
6. Population issues : Zero Population Growth (www.zpg.org); Also, Albert Bartlett’s article
“Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment”, (Population and
Environment , Vol. 16, No. 1, Sept 1994; pp. 5-35); Population is that “taboo” topic which,
because of our level of consumption/waste production, is critical to address publicly.
7. Sustainability Strategies : The National Research Council’s “Our Common Journey: A
Transition Toward Sustainability” is available at www.nap.edu/catalog/9690.html . Their three goals
- to meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing population, to sustain the life support systems of
the planet, and to substantially reduce hunger and poverty - in 2 generations seems unfeasible in light
of our current situation.
8. The Nemesis Effect : Ecological collapse has been observed in isolated areas. We now
face it on a global scale with “fuzzy” science indicators and policy makers who want absolute
predictability. Complexity of systems, unintended feedback loops, limited understanding, and many
uncontrollable parameters make cascading failures leading to ecosystem collapse extremely difficult
to foresee or predict. See “The Nemesis Effect”, by Chris Bright in World Watch , Vol. 12,
No. 3, May/June 1999, pp. 12- 23.
9. Global Health Monitoring : Look for the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Index
Report at www.panda.org .
10. Ecological Footprint Research : See Redefining Progress website at www.rprogress.org .
Includes downloadable footprint calculators. Best Foot Forward is at www.bestfootforward.com .