What is the Ecological Footprint Metric

It is important to understand how eco-footprinting is structured and should be used.

Some background: Eco-footprint analysis and accounts (EFA) were originally designed to measure one thing only — the area of productive ecosystems being used by specified populations to provide their bioresources and assimilate their carbon wastes using prevailing technologies.

It is not a predictive tool; EFA generates a snap-shot of particular conditions at the time of the assessment. Nor is EFA a comprehensive metric— it does not measure such things as ozone depletion, climate change, toxic pollution or other non-land-based human impacts.

EFA does its assigned task admirably and with sufficient accuracy to show that most countries, and the human enterprise as a whole, are far into ecological overshoot. They are using much more than their domestic (or global) biocapacities and are dependent for survival on trade flows or on the depletion of resources. In many respects, this should be sufficient to suggest that any sustainability strategies based on further consumption and population growth are doomed to fail.

Again, each assessment is a snapshot at a moment of time revealing the situation under then existing circumstances and technologies. While a snapshot of ‘now’ doesn’t show what the situation might be like under completely different conditions, EFA is capable of showing the effects of new technologies, economic growth or changing trade patterns. All we have to do is take repeated snapshots over time (as the Global Footprint Network does annually) — if technology or consumption patterns have changed or trade flows have been disrupted, then a longitudinal series of snapshots will show any effects on the EF. (Remember, every old movie was a progression of snapshots.)

To repeat, EFA doesn’t predict; nor is EFA prescriptive—it does not tell us what to do, just that we should do something to reduce consumption or population or both. It certainly does not suggest that a few tweaks here and there will assure long-term viability much less support the notion of endless growth.

Anyone who thinks that a country with an eco-footprint three or five times larger than its domestic biocapacity can become more self-reliant with a few adjustments is not thinking clearly; anyone who thinks that EFA perpetuates the myth that we can “save and continue with this civilization” (which EFA clearly shows would require a massive material contraction and/or population correction) simply doesn’t get’ the implications of the analysis.

Any sensible assessment of EFA results shows that many countries are in jeopardy from climate chaos or a breakdown in trade flows and that the world as a whole is in dramatic overshoot that can be fixed only by policies that are not yet under serious discussion let alone negotiation in mainstream circles. (See the link for detailed implications.)

Common misunderstandings serve only to undermine the validity of EFA assessments which are crucial in laying out any viable strategy for minimizing the severity of the challenges before us.

There is actually much more to this — anyone interested in pursuing this further should consult the new paper at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00139157.2023.2225405

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