Features and Occasionals

How Many Earths Do You Need?

By Myron Willson

“All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded, students are taught that they are part of or apart from the natural world … we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.” — David Orr

Back in 2007, I was asked to present green building technologies to a group of BYU construction students. In addition to the basics of sustainable buildings—such as construction waste recycling, solar panels, recycling of construction waste and low-flush toilets—I wanted the students to understand there was much more to the picture than LEED building certification.

I felt strongly then, as I do now, that it is important to share sustainability in the context of how our buildings and cities impact “real people and their communities.” Rather than list the environmental aspects of building materials, energy flows, stormwater pollution, etc., I decided to try something new.

With the help of some wonderful librarians, I gathered economic information about the people I imagined the construction students hoped to be after graduation: stereotypical upper-class Utah residents. I took those characteristics and entered them into a calculator that evaluates ecological impact based on a variety of factors. The results were staggering: Based on present-day population numbers, if all 7.46 billion people on the planet lived like upper-class Utahns, we’d need the resources of almost seven or eight Earths.

Want to figure this out for yourself?

Fortunately, there is a great tool for testing various lifestyle choices at the macro level. We can use the ecological footprint (EF) calculator found at the Global Footprint Network to see just how much impact we have on the planet. The results are based on dietary habits, transportation methods and distances, type and size of housing, energy sources, consumption patterns and other lifestyle choices.

Ecological Footprint background and details

The tool was developed in the mid 1990s when William Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning, and a graduate student developed a quantitative tool to estimate humanity’s ecological impact on the planet. The calculator measures the amount of resources a population uses in everyday living versus the land area required to produce those same resources. It also measures the resources required to absorb the waste that is produced.

Additionally, the EF calculator automatically includes impacts from community services in the person’s region, which are then added to the individual’s footprint.

For example: Think about all the theaters running air-conditioning, movie-projectors, lighting and popcorn machines seven days a week whether there are five or 500 people at the movie. Same for restaurants, government buildings, hospitals, military bases and other societal services. The community-related services in our region significantly add to our footprint. Consequently, it is very difficult for someone living in Utah to have a lifestyle that is completely free of environmental impact.

Another important thing to know about the EF calculator is that there are no questions about children or other family members living with you. As the EF website states: “Although you may be responsible for the care of children, they have their own individual Footprint just as an adult does. A family or household Footprint can be calculated by adding up the individual Footprints of the family members.”

EF calculators also do not include information about non-lifestyle personal activities. This means that efforts such as donating time or money to support reforestation or habit restoration, water conservation, community gardening, reduced chemical use, political activism and other positive steps are not factored into your personal footprint. While these initiatives are extremely important, the Footprint calculator measures only the demand on the ecosystem your personal lifestyle creates.

Not perfect, but useful

Ecological footprint calculators have additional limitations and detractors. They involve so many data points and calculations that they may oversimplify methods and results. While great at helping non-experts to visualize large and complex systems, they should not be used to document specific processes like greenhouse gas accounting or impacts at the local scale.

“Any global metric that attempts to capture and summarize a range of large-scale and complex phenomena is sure to entail simplifications, biases, errors, and gaps,” says Peter Kareiva, Director at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Author and commentator Bjorn Lomborg wrote in Forbes that EF calculators oversimplify current systems and ignore opportunities to make global improvements. He is specifically concerned that forests are the only tool EF uses to account for sequestration of CO2. But EF is only set up to measure the existing system and current solutions. While it is true that millions of acres of solar farms would do more to sequester carbon than planting forests, nobody is currently planning to build solar farms of that magnitude.

Others also worry that sharing this type of information with the general public can produce a backlash. For example, some might see the enormity of the task at hand and conclude that they can’t make a difference: “These results suggest that environmental-footprint feedback only promotes sustainable behavior for people who are already committed to environmentalism and may discourage sustainable behavior among people who are not already committed to environmentalism,” Santa Clara University psychologist Amara Brook wrote.

On the other hand, social psychologist Robert Cialdini, who studies how to get Americans to lower energy consumption, believes few methods are as effective as comparing people with their peers. “It is fundamental and primitive,” said Cialdini. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

By relating our results with peers from other countries, other Americans, Utahns, and even our friends and family, we can get back to the positive influence that EF calculators potentially can provide. And we can see that it’s possible to have a great lifestyle and still walk lightly on the Earth.

Ecological footprint is not a foolproof measurement, by any means. However, it can help us understand our ecological assets, current consumption patterns, and opportunities to change behavior, policy and law.

I also believe that EF calculators provide other opportunities for teaching moments that outweigh potential risks.

By looking thoughtfully at the consequences of our own actions, we begin to see patterns and processes that are not obvious on a day-to-day basis. Consequently, we begin to make the invisible visible, increasing opportunities to improve our impact on the natural world. We can also learn more about demographics, consumption trends and implications of environmental policy, and have a window into the ecological processes upon which we depend. Footprint calculations compared with those of other individuals and groups can provide a basis for wide-ranging discussions of inequality in resource use and waste, as well as the cultural, political and economic systems that structure them.

“Footprinting is a powerful and compelling concept because it summarizes complicated phenomena in a single number,” says Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of Journal of Industrial Ecology. “That is simultaneously its strength and its weakness.”

What are the big takeaways we learn from ecological footprint calculators?

First, no two people are alike. Although we may come from similar neighborhoods and have similar-looking houses or apartments, our travel, diet, consumption habits and other factors are not always obvious to the outsider. We should be very careful making assumptions about how others live and spend more time trying to improve our own footprint.

Second, airline travel is impactful. Even one round trip per year can negatively offset other really good behaviors. Consider purchasing offsets if you must fly.

Third, a diet full of meat and dairy products has large consequences. Changing to a vegetarian or reduced-meat diet can not only make you healthier, but could also reduce overall ecological impact by 25% or more.

Lastly, if solar is combined with home efficiency efforts, the two  together can reduce one’s personal ecological footprint. While rooftop solar can help reduce a person’s footprint coming from electrical use, rooftop alone may not reduce one’s ecological footprint as much as you’d think.

As we celebrate Earth Day, I recommend we all take a few minutes to calculate our ecological footprint to evaluate how we can lighten our impact on the planet.

Even more importantly, we need to be more engaged in helping to create the kind of communities that support sustainable living. At best, personal ecological footprint calculators are rough estimates to help put major life choices into context. They can’t help decide between a local steak and wild-caught cod, but they help to better understand how our lifestyle choices affect real people and communities.

Myron has been the Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Utah since 2009 and formerly practiced architecture and planning in California and Utah. He is also on the Board of Directors for HEAL Utah. Follow him at @WillsonMyron.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2018.