Unit 3c. 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.


Figure 3.c.1

Ecological footprint


Ecological and social problems have historically been considered distinct issues, consigned to separate government agencies; however, these problems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. We are slowly realizing that 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 article Rich Planet, Poor Planet - Chapter 1, 2001 p. 3-20 from WorldWatch institute. We will use this article as means to think about our consumption patterns on a broad scale. This article 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 skimming the article "The Ecological Footprint of Nations, 2004" before class. You may also want to look at a PowerPoint Presentation by the WorldWatch Institute entitled "Moving Toward a Less Consumptive Society."


In Class

Examine the degree to which your 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 1.8 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.


Please calculate your ecological footprint using the simple online Ecological Footprint Calculator. Note the units for your footprint.  If your footprint is given in acres, convert it to hectares: 1 acre = 0.4 hectares.  Remember, worldwide there exist 1.8 biologically productive hectares per person.  Therefore, at the current global population if everyone used only 1.8 hectares we would be ecologically sustainable. If people consume more than the equivalent of 1.8 hectares per person we would need more planets to support the population and therefore would be living unsustainably.


In Table 3.c.1 write down your footprint for the amount of hectares that you consume for:


  • Food
  • Mobility
  • Shelter
  • Goods/Services
  • Total Footprint
  • Number of Planets Needed


Question 3.c.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. Once you have made some changes to your consumption patterns, write down your footprint for the amount of hectares that you consume for:


  • Food
  • Mobility
  • Shelter
  • Goods/Services
  • Total Footprint
  • Number of Planets Needed


Question 3.c.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, choose a developing country and calculate the ecological footprint of a hypothetical person of your age and gender living in that country. Write down the ecological footprint for the amount of hectares that this hypothetical person consumes for:


  • Food
  • Mobility
  • Shelter
  • Goods/Services
  • Total Footprint
  • Number of Planets Needed


Question 3.c.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? Do you think it is reasonable to compare your footprint to someone in the developing world using this method?


Give each of your ecological footprint numbers to the instructor to graph in excel. This way the class can examine the class average for each run of the ecological footprint calculation and discuss them.


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 3.c.1

Results of Ecological Footprint Scenarios



Ecological Footprint Action Plans

Students should be broken up into small groups to come up with an action plans for reducing ecological footprints. Groups should number off by threes with group one developing an action plan for how the average American could reduce their ecological footprint. Group two should develop a plan to reduce the ecological footprint for the city as a whole, in which you live. Group three should develop an action plan to reduce the ecological footprint of your state. Once groups have developed their action plans, groups should share their plans with the class.



At the end of section, the class as a whole, or in small groups, should discuss some of the following questions:


Question 3.c.4

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 3.c.5

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.c.6

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


Question 3.c.7

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


Question 3.c.8

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


Question 3.c.9

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 3.c.10

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?


Supplementary resources

A more detailed Household Ecological Footprint Calculator

Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (.pdf)



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.




Figure 3.c.2

Ecological footprint of a city

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