What is an Ecological Footprint?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “ecological footprint” was developed by environmentalists to describe the impact that an individual has on his or her environment. An ecological footprint takes a number of things into account such as car ownership, amount of garbage generated, how often the individual walks or rides a bicycle, and other things designed to gauge land and water usage. The concept of an ecological footprint was developed in response to concerns that people were not living sustainably, and that existing rates of consumption, especially in the First World, would result in resource deficiencies.

The amount of time spent riding a bicycle can affect an ecological footprint.
The amount of time spent riding a bicycle can affect an ecological footprint.

Growing concerns about global population pressure have led to initiatives which are designed to make human life more sustainable. According to environmental organizations, there are 4.5 useful acres on Earth for each person. Most people in the West have an ecological footprint that is far larger, meaning that there would need to be multiple planets to sustain a population consuming at that rate. People in impoverished nations have a much smaller ecological footprint, although growing populations and promotion of Western styles of life may lead to an increase.

Impoverished people have much smaller ecological footprints.
Impoverished people have much smaller ecological footprints.

The idea of an ecological footprint was conceived in 1992 by William Rees, a Canadian ecologist. Rees believed that finding a rough yardstick to measure consumption would help to illustrate the problems caused by population pressure and increases in consumption. Using data gathered all over the world, he showed that present rates of consumption and increase could result in a serious global problem in an alarmingly short amount of time. While the ecological footprint does have some inaccuracies, it is a solid starting point for a discussion about how humans use the environment.

Rees also showed that small changes could markedly reduce an ecological footprint, and that if Western nations worked together, they could greatly reduce the amount of resources they were consuming. Individual citizens could make a difference just as corporations and governments could, especially if they were shown concrete ways in which changes could be made. Some changes require drastic lifestyle alterations, while others are more simple and practical.

Ecological footprints are used as educational tools all over the world to show people how they interact with the environment around them. Simple online calculators which will show consumers their ecological footprints can be found at a number of sites, and are an interesting way to evaluate a lifestyle. In addition to providing a total ecological footprint, most sites show ways in which people can reduce their ecological footprints, based on the lifestyles they lead.

If Western nations put in the effort, they may be able to reduce their ecological footprint and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.
If Western nations put in the effort, they may be able to reduce their ecological footprint and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I just took an on-line ecological footprint calculator and my results were extremely high, meaning extremely horrible.

One suggestion the ecological website suggested was to cut my animal consumption in half.

They also suggested that I should buy less packed products and more 100 percent post-consumer recycled content.

Another way to reduce my ecological footprint is to ride public transportation more and carpool more.

An easy thing I need to start doing to help our environment is to recycle more. If I see trash on the side of the road I should pick it up and either recycle it or through it away.

I also need to start spending more money on fresh produce, and less on pre-packaged freezer items.

I need to stop using so much electricity, water, and gas.

They said if everyone used/wasted as much energy as me, we would need 4.3 earths to supply adequate resources!

I pledge to use less of our planet's energy starting today! I will try not to waste too much energy and resources anymore. I hope to get my ecological footprint very small as soon as possible.


@Monika - You would be surprised at how many people don't recycle. You're not the only one! To be fair, not every community makes it easy for people to recycle so I can see why people don't do it. Many people just aren't informed or don't concern themselves with the environment.

I think for our country to truly reduce our ecological footprint, both individual, communities, and businesses need to put forth an effort. One small thing that makes a big difference is curbside recycling. If people can put their recycling out the same way they do the trash, they are more likely to do it.

Also, if big businesses make small changes to their practices, it can result in a big reduction of their footprint. This is worthwhile environmentally, but it also makes the businesses look good to consumers!


I used an online calculator ecological footprint calculator to calculate my footprint awhile back and I was flabbergasted! My footprint was extremely high.

After that, I made some small changes to my lifestyle that reduced my ecological footprint. I started recycling (I know, I should have already been doing that) and shopping for more things locally. I also started consolidating my errands into one trip to save gas and walking everywhere I could. I know I'm only one person, but I like to think all these things make a little bit of a difference in the world!

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