No matter how you live or what size shoes you wear, everyone has an ecological footprint. This is a measurement of a person’s impact on natural resources and the environment in order to sustain daily life.
Put more simply, an ecological footprint measures how much of the planet’s resources you use. It’s different for everyone based on where and how you live your life, but there’s room for everyone to improve.
Ecological footprints can also be measured at the community or organizational level, and there are plenty of opportunities for people to come together and collectively reduce their impact on the environment.
Ecological Footprint: The Basics
Ecological footprints are measured using global hectares. One hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres of biologically productive space — forest, farmland, water, etc. There are about 11.2 billion hectares worldwide, or about one quarter of all available space on the planet.
What does that mean? Everyone is working from the same pool of resources, and we all need to understand how we fit into the larger picture.
The Global Footprint Network has an ecological footprint calculator that covers everything from food consumption to travel habits. It’s a little hokey with music and avatars, but it’s fairly quick to complete and provides valuable information about how much land and energy are required to sustain your current lifestyle.
According to Global Footprint Network estimates, if everyone in the world lived like the average US citizen, we would need 5 ⅓ planets to support everyone, with an average of 24 acres per person.
Additionally, more than 80% of the world’s population live in countries that operate at an ecological deficit, meaning they use more resources than their natural ecosystems can renew. Manmade resources help offset some of this deficit, but at these levels, it is not sustainable in the long term.
How To Reduce Your Ecological Footprint
While we might not have the resources necessary to sustain ecological footprints for everyone in the world, the good news is that your overall footprint can be reduced, and even small changes can have a large impact. The biggest areas for change are energy use and eating, according to WWF.
Some of the ways to reduce your ecological footprint at home are already part of living a sustainable lifestyle:
- Walk or take public transportation instead of using a car. This is a win-win because it’s good for your body and good for the planet.
- Dry your clothes outside. You clothes will have a natural fresh scent, and you will save money on electricity or gas, depending on what type of dryer you have.
- Choose energy-saving appliances for your home. Save your receipts because you may be eligible for a tax credit from the purchase.
- Use only as much heat or air conditioning in your home as necessary. Turning your thermostat down by 1 degree can save 2-3% on your energy bill.
Larger-scale changes include investing in renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels and, if possible, reducing the size of your home or car. While not everyone can live in a tiny house powered by solar panels and drive a Smart car that runs on biodiesel, you may be surprised by how little you really need to be happy.
Recycling is another key component of footprint reduction. Many of us already do this on some level, but it’s important to keep up to date on your community’s recycling standards to ensure you are throwing away as little as possible. Get started by finally finding out whether or not styrofoam is recyclable.
A change in diet can also go a long way toward reducing your individual footprint. A plant-based diet reduces greenhouse gas emission from animals used as food sources, and it reduces the amount of fossil fuel burned transporting meat from farms to grocery stores. In fact, if every American went without meat for just one meal per week, it would be the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off US roads.
Like a lot of things, there’s strength in numbers when it comes to reducing ecological footprints. Here are some ideas to get started in your community.
- Organize carpools and bike sharing programs to reduce the amount of cars on the road and exhaust in the air.
- Create farmer’s markets and swap meets to promote the use of locally-produced products.
- Work with your public officials to promote widespread footprint reduction on larger issues like green buildings and mixed-use neighborhoods.
- Don’t just sit on the sidelines — go to government meetings and speak up about changes you’d like to see.
The type of change needed to make a dent in a community’s ecological footprint is not going to happen overnight, but any step toward reduction will help in the long run. Ready to get started? The group Redefining Progress has additional resources for affecting change at the community level, as well as a calculator to determine a municipal footprint.
Outside of local government, communities can band together to encourage businesses to reduce their environmental impact. Consumers have a say in the bottom lines of local businesses. Make a choice as a community not to support businesses that follow unsustainable practices. Consumer actions speak loudly, and business owners will listen if they know their customers are pushing for footprint reduction.
In the era of the Trump administration, the voices arguing against such change are inevitably going to get louder. But that’s all the more reason to push for change at an individual and community level.