Ecological Footprint



The goal of this lab is to explore inequality in economic and consumption patterns for the rich and poor. We will explore issues of lifestyle, consumption, and affluence as they intersect with the concept of sustainability.

Ecological and social problems have historically been considered distinct issues, consigned to separate government agencies; however, these problems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. We cannot protect our environment without addressing the underlying social issues that are causing ecological degradation. Furthermore, poverty and environmental decline are deeply rooted in today's economic systems. Thus, we need to consider ecology, economics, and sociology to create an economy that is both socially and ecologically sustainable.

Before coming to class
Read the articles Rich Planet, Poor Planet - Chapter 1, 2001 p. 3-20 from WorldWatch Institute, and the United Nations' Human Development Report - Chapter 2, The advance of people, 2010 p. 16-19. We will use these readings as means to think about our consumption patterns on a broad scale and changing worldwide standards of living. These articles will be used as the background for a spirited discussion on ways to move toward a more sustainable society. In addition, please familiarize yourself with concepts of ecological footprints and sustainability by reading The Sustainable Scale website before class.

During class
We will examine the degree to which our own living habits are sustainable by calculating your
 ecological footprint using the Ecological Footprint Calculator. To be ecologically sustainable, each person living on the planet should consume no more than 15.7 hectares of land for their total ecological footprint.  However, the average American ecological footprint is roughly eight times that amount! We will then use the average class footprint to talk about ways to decrease our consumption patterns and think about solutions to decrease the gap between rich and poor.

To access the Ecological Footprint Calculator use the following login information:


            Password: XXXXXXX (provided on Canvas; do not share)

Please calculate your individual ecological footprint using the simple online Ecological Footprint Calculator. Selecting metric as your measurement system give your results in global hectares, however if you're not used to thinking in the metric system you may need to convert many of the units in the questions, conversely you can select U.S. units and convert your answer to fit the table below. (note: 1 hectare = 100 meters by 100 meters).  Remember, worldwide there exist 15.7 hectares per person.  If people consume more than the equivalent of 15.7 hectares per person we would need more planets to support the population and therefore would be living unsustainably.

Copy Table 1 into your Word document and use the calculations from each of the three scenarios (Questions 1-3) to complete it:


Footprint for:

Scenario 1 
  Your Normal Consumption (hectares)

Scenario 2 
 Your Decreased Consumption (hectares)

Scenario 3 
Hypothetical Consumption of Someone in the Developing World (hectares)





















Total Footprint





Number of Planets Used





Table 1 Results of Ecological Footprint Scenarios


Question 1

Fill your numbers into the table for Scenario 1. Do you find your consumption level surprising? How do you feel about it?

Now redo your ecological footprint and determine what things you could easily change in your consumption patterns to reduce your ecological footprint. Clicking the 'Reduce your footprint' button will take you to a page with suggestions on ways to do this which may help you imagine Scenario 2. Once you have made some changes to your consumption patterns, write down your footprint for the amount of hectares that you consume for this scenario.

Question 2 
Fill your numbers into the table for Scenario 2. What did you change to decrease your footprint?
Do you think that making these changes is realistic for you? Why or why not?

Lastly, calculate the ecological footprint of a hypothetical person of your age and gender living in a developing country. Write down the ecological footprint for the amount of hectares that this hypothetical person consumes for:

Question 3 
Fill your numbers into the table for Scenario 3. What country did you choose? How different is this person's consumption patterns to yours?
Why do you think that the same behaviors in the developing country result in a lower ecological footprint?

Question 4
Use the "Country Trends" calculator on Footprint Network Website to explore and compare the ecological footprint and biocapacity of different nations around the world. Choose a developed and developing nation for analysis and explain the differences you see.
How does the developed nation information compare with your responses to Questions 2 & 3?
What is biocapacity?

Assignment due next week 
Turn in Table 1 (from above), your responses to the bulleted questions (Scenario 1-3 and the Follow-Up Activity) and the My Food, My Water homework assignment (link here). 
Group Discussion Questions
At the end of section, the class as a whole, or in small groups, should discuss some of the following questions:

Question 1 
How do your consumption patterns translate to pressures on the environment? Draw a conceptual systems thinking diagram to illustrate how your consumption patterns are connected to ecological, social and economic factors.

Question 2 
What do you consider to be the most pressing issue related to economic, social, and ecological sustainability? What steps could be implemented to improve in this area?

Question 3 
How is population growth and poverty connected to ecological degradation and biodiversity loss?

Question 4 
What are some methods that could be employed to empower poor people and reduce poverty?

Question 5 
What is your stance on economic globalization? What are the pros and cons of globalization and market liberalization for people and the environment?

Question 6 
What social conditions are necessary for changes toward sustainability to be made in the economic and environmental spheres? Give some examples of industries where progress towards sustainability has been made.

Question 7 
What strategies can be implemented to bridge the social and economic gap between the largely developed North and developing Southern nations to create a more sustainable economy and healthy future for humanity and the planet?

Rees, William E, and Mathis Wackernagel. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1996. 
Venetoulis, J., D. Chazan, and C. Gaudet. 2004. The Ecological Footprint of Nations. Redefining Progress, Oakland, CA.