Introduction to Ecological Footprints



Further reading

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The analytical tool known as 'Ecological Footprints' (EF) was developed by Dr Mathis Wackernagel and Prof William Rees. EF is not only a conceptual tool which helps to understand how different human activities have different 'loads' - footprints - on the supportive environment; it is also a very practical tool for measuring human impact on the Earth's resource base.

William Rees has been teaching the basic concepts of EF analysis since the 1970's, and it has been further developed by Mathis Wackernagel and other students working with Mr Rees at University of British Columbia's Healthy and Sustainable Communities Task Force. Mr Wackernagel and Mr Rees published the book Our Ecological Footprint - Reducing Human Impact on the Earth in 1996, and the concept has after that been firmly established in the
discourse on sustainable development, ecological economics and urban studies.


The difference between EF analysis and the classic concept of Carrying Capacity (CC) becomes obvious when we look at the physical units that these two concepts use. Carrying capacity explains how many individuals sustainably live in a certain spatial area, with a corresponding unit of [individuals/area]. EF analysis, on the other hand, inverts this relationship and use the units [area/individual], making hectares per capita a standard unit for Ecological Footprints. The Ecological Footprint is therefore the measure of how much ecologically productive land and water a defined population unit needs to support its current consumption and to take care of its wastes.

The population unit can vary from an individual, a community, a nation and even the whole planet. By measuring the consumption levels and waste treatment behaviour of these populations, EF analysis converts these measurements into land area equivalents required for this consumption and the corresponding waste handling. These conversion figures are calculated in advance through reasoning, physical measurements and process analysis. However, all land areas are not similar what regards ecoproductivity. The EF analysis takes account of these differences by dividing up land into several separate categories: fossil energy land, arable land, pasture, forest, built-up land, and sea.

Making an EF calculation on an individual usually means that the consumption and waste production is measured and summarized. These are then converted into land area equivalents - different consumption goods and services need different combinations of different land types in order to exist. Individual footprints doesn't take account of 'hidden consumption', for example the public service of military defence. National EF analysis includes public spending, easily calculated through national trade statistics. National EF analysis makes one thing very clear: certain parts of the world use up far more than the ecoproductivity defined by these parts' geopolitical areas. The implications are clear: we would need 3 more planets like Earth to support a typical Western life-style over the whole human population.

Further reading

In this section you will find some references to books and articles dealing primarily with ecological footprint theory and application. If you think that anything is missing in this list, please contact us at

For Internet-related material, please visit the Other EF-resources on the web section.

You can choose to browse through either the books or the articles or, to see all titles, just scroll down as usual.


OUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT - MEASURING HUMAN IMPACT ON THE EARTH (Professor William Rees, Dr Mathis Wackernagel, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, 1996, ISBN USA 0-86571-312-X)


Center for Sustainability Studies, March 19, 1998)

HOW MUCH NATURE DO THEY HAVE? (Wackernagel et al, 1997, ICLEI, Toronto)

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