Beyond the Footprint

May 27, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Ed. note: This piece is an excerpt from the new e-book entitled:Ecological Handprints: Breakthrough Innovations in the Developing World

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A farmer charges his cell phone with solar panels in the Aravilli hills, Udaipur District, India.   |  Credit: Mark Katzman

The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.— E.O. Wilson

We are living in an era that Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen has labeled the “Anthropocene” — a new geologic epoch defined by our own massive impact on the planet. The path of the Anthropocene has been paved in large part by resource-intensive, fossil fuel-dominated, and highly polluting patterns of consumption. It has risen steeply and rapidly from the time of the industrial revolution to the present day, at least for those of us in highly developed economies. Today, however, this old path — based on false assumptions of cheap energy and unlimited nature — ultimately leads us all to a dead end of greater human suffering and conflict, along with further weakening and depletion of the natural systems that support all life on the planet.

Now we face the daunting task of successfully navigating the rest of the Anthropocene. The journey will require a fresh perspective, with a high level of innovation, commitment and creativity. In the days ahead, as billions continue struggling to meet basic human needs, we must look beyond merely lowering our Ecological Footprint to create a richer, deeper, and more relevant paradigm that brings people not only closer to the planet, but also closer to each other.

What is an Ecological Footprint? The Ecological Footprint is a measurement of human demands upon nature, and as such it represents an essential accounting of our escalating impacts on local and global ecosystems. It measures and tracks the amount of biologically-productive land and water area a human population uses to sustain itself and its lifestyle. This includes, for example, the energy and other resources the population consumes, the space it needs for buildings and roads, and the ecosystems it requires for absorbing its waste emissions such as carbon dioxide.

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Components of an Ecological Footprint  |  Credit: Global Footprint Network.

The Ecological Footprint has justifiably emerged as a premier measure of humanity’s demand on nature and a leading indicator in the field of sustainability. Nevertheless, the Footprint is a limited accounting tool. It only quantifies our impact on natural systems and natural capital. It is not designed to encompass or measure our related impact on human development or humanitarian issues such as poverty, human rights, and social justice. In other words, while the concept of Ecological Footprints is a key piece of the equation, it’s missing an important component – the human touch.

Ecological Handprints expands upon the Ecological Footprint by linking together the interrelated goals of sustaining the biological integrity of the planet and ensuring sustenance for those in need. The interrelationship between these two goals is crucial, but is often overlooked when we focus on solving one issue or the other.

As we seek creative responses to a more complex and compromised planetary village, Ecological Handprints represent a nexus-based approach to problem solving in the challenging days ahead — an approach built on a wide range of innovative efforts that improve human well-being while also having a low-footprint.

Three basic questions about the state of our global village help set the context for why an Ecological Handprints perspective is so important:

1. Where are most of the people in the world living now and in the foreseeable future?
2. What is the nature of their daily existence?
3. What is their current and future level of ecological impact?   

We know that there are over 7 billion of us on the planet now — but exactly where does everyone live? The map below helps us visualize the distribution of humanity by reducing world population to a village of 100 people. When displayed in this manner it’s easy to see that the vast majority of humanity — about 75% of the people in the world — live in Asia and Africa.

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Global Population Distribution  |  Credit: The World of 100

In the days ahead, how many more people to we expect to live on our planet? Most experts forecast that earth’s population will add around two billion additional people by 2050, and then perhaps one billion more by the end of the century — leveling out at a whopping 10 billion. Again, the less developed regions of Asia and Africa, as well as Latin America, dominate these projections. Africa, by far the world’s poorest region, will record the largest population growth between now and 2050. In fact, Africa’s population is expected to more than double, rising from 1.1 billion today to at least 2.4 billion by 2050 — and nearly all of that growth is projected to occur in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Asia, already home to 60 percent of the world’s inhabitants, will likely experience a much smaller proportional increase than Africa, but will still add almost one billion people by 2050. Latin America will also continue to experience significant population growth.

What is the nature of daily existence in these high population regions of the world? Although each region is complex and unique, it’s fair to say that for far too many, the dominant daily issues have more to do with physical survival than ecological sustainability. Today, one billion people in the world still live in extreme poverty with little certainty where they will get their next meal. Another 1.5 billion live above subsistence, but are still subject to life-threatening problems such as inadequate sanitation, unclean drinking water, and lack of adequate energy access. Sadly, these two groups together account for one-third of humanity — the vast majority of which are young people living in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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Global Energy Poverty  |  Credit: EIA World Energy Outlook, 2013.

Clearly, for billions of the world’s poor, greater well-being revolves around a different set of concerns than those faced by most people in industrialized nations. They’re not worried about what sort of light bulb to buy — they just need light. They don’t worry if water in plastic bottles is a long-term disposal issue — they just need water that won’t make them sick. They’re not thinking about greening their school’s curriculum, they just need access to education. In other words, because their most basic human needs are far from assured on a day-to-day basis, their primary concern is not the sustainability of the planet, but simply how they might sustain their lives for the immediate future.

Finally, what about the current and future ecological impact of the billions of people living in poverty in the developing world? These emerging, high-population regions have historically used relatively small amounts of natural resources such as oil, coal, timber, and minerals, so their per capita Ecological Footprints have been relatively low — but will they stay that way in the years ahead?

What if all of the individuals currently living in these highly populated and developing nations instantly raised their standard of living (and the size of their footprints) via the same expensive, resource-intensive and carbon-based approaches used in the past?

We would need three to five planets!

Then add to that sobering revelation the additional demands of three billion people who are scheduled to arrive before the end of this century — in just one generation’s time.

You can begin to see that at a global level, the path to a more sustainable future can’t just be about a massive greening of the already industrialized, developed world. Yes, transforming current industrial economies to greater eco-efficiency is critical. Thankfully there are many marvelous organizations and individuals working to address this challenge, but the massive ecological re-engineering of the industrialized world alone won’t save us — not even close.

To be sustainable as a global village — to be able to keep all of our human and ecological systems healthy — we also need to aggressively identify and bring to market a wide range of affordable, ecologically-sound development strategies in the highly-populated, emerging nations.

It’s said that ‘you have to go there to know there.’ I’ve been to many of these high-population, high-poverty places through my international consulting and teaching. When you walk the favelas in Brazil, the townships in South Africa, and the slums in India — or the ever-growing rings of makeshift communities surrounding the perimeter of virtually every major city in the developing world — it’s abundantly clear that we need a bold, new path to sustainable well-being for all.

But this new path will have to cost less and have less impact on the environment than the old paradigm. Otherwise, as noted by Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto, “If emerging economies have to relive the entire industrial revolution with all its waste, its energy use, and its pollution, I think it’s all over.”


Exemplary Ecological Handprints are highlighted throughout the book with powerful photographs and abundant web links.  These efforts demonstrate to us that there are countless ingenious ways to achieve a high level of human development without breaking the bank or compromising the natural capital upon which all life depends.

Ecological Handprints come in many different shapes and colors. Yet time and time again, both in the contemporary literature and in my own personal experience, I’ve found that the most successful projects almost always contain several of these five keys to success:

1. Affordable
2. Local
3. Women empowered
4. Digitally enhanced
5. Creatively financed

These five keys to success are the logical starting point for anyone interested in addressing the pressing humanitarian and environmental issues we currently face as a global community.


Tags: Anthropocene, building resilient communities, Ecological Footprint