Ecological Footprint is a term used to describe a measure of the productive land area needed to support a given group of people at a certain standard of living.

Peter Matthiessen describes a Niaruna village in the Amazon:

"A high-peaked maloca ... occupied the back of the clearing, parallel to the river, with several round huts placed at random on the two remaining sides; ... All of these structures were thatched with palm fronds, and camouflaged by ground and forest... The clearing itself was a bare ground littered with small fires and half-burned logs, rotting palm-leaf baskets, old torn matting, broken clay pots, wood mortars and pestles, an old dugout, and .... some coils of fresh clay for new pottery. A vegetable patch half overgrown with passion-flower vines was visible behind the maloca, and behind this the manioc plantations, rude broken clearings of burned tree trunks and piled undergrowth, stretched inland from the river."(At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Random House, pg. 165)

This little subsistence hunting/gathering/farming village might support 40 people. It would be a relatively easy task to measure the actual land area they are using for their village and gardens. We would also need to figure in some area as their portion of the greater forest being used for hunting and gathering. This tribe is appropriating a certain area for its support. The hectares per person it takes to support this population is its ecological footprint.

In the
Foundation Trilogy, Issac Asimov describes the planet of Trantor:

"Its urbanization, progressing steadily, had finally reached the ultimate. All the land surface...75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of the Empire... Daily fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor..."

The people of Trantor, too, are appropriating land area to meet their needs. A quick calculation shows us that they are using about .5 hectares per capita on Trantor. But, we have seen that Trantor is far from self-sufficient. In fact, we are told "its dependence upon the outer worlds for food, and indeed, all the necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable..." To estimate the ecological footprint of the citizen of Trantor we need to know where and what they are "appropriating" from the twenty other planets to meet their needs. We can be sure that the hectares per capita would soon be far above the .5 hectares they are using at home.

This concept has been applied by researchers Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees at the University of British Columbia. When the issue is placed into real numbers using actual societies the results are astounding. They made an estimate of the per capita ecological footprint of the average Canadian using needs for energy, built environment, agricultural land and forest as estimators. With just these categories the need is 4.2 hectares per person. They found that the 1.7 million people in the Vancouver region need an area 18 times larger than what is actually available for food, forest products and energy. As we saw on Trantor, "human settlements don't affect just the area where they build." (Wackernagel, Mathis.
How BIG is our Ecological Footprint?, pg. 5)

The implications? If the present world population of 5.8 billion people were to live at current North American standards of 4.5 ha/person the productive land requirement would be 26 billion hectares. But, there are only 8.8 billion hectares of ecologically productive cropland, pasture or forest on earth. That is, we need two additional planets at least as productive as Earth to accommodate all its people at a level that less than twenty-five percent of us enjoy today. If population was to stabilize at 10-11 billion in the next century, five additional Earths are needed. Are we on the way to becoming Trantor? (Rees and Wackernagle, 1994, Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity; Measuring the natural capital requirements of the human economy.)

These calculations force us to reexamine our need for and use of resources and consider ways that we can become more self-reliant and productive on the land that we do have available. At home, in our communities and through our governments we can respond to the issue of our footprint. Permaculture principles and practices provide a working model dealing directly with actions that can be taken by any concerned person.


Ecological Footprint