Heroes of Sustainability: Mathis Wackernagel, Pioneer of the Eco-Footprint

The concept of a carbon footprint — the amount of the earth’s resources a person or institution is using to function — is a widespread one these days. We use online calculators to find it, buy carbon credits to offset it, and know just what will make it go up and down (air travel is bad; energy-efficient lighting is good).

 This measurement that’s such an integral part of the eco-revolution is courtesy of Mathis Wackernagel, a Swiss-born leader in sustainable research. He was a PhD student at the University of British Columbia when he focused his doctoral dissertation on the concept of an “ecological footprint,” then a novel idea that he developed in conjunction with adviser William Rees. Today he heads the Global Footprint Network, a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and promoting metrics for sustainability.

The group works on a much bigger scale than just calculating the output of an individual person or company — instead, it measures nations’ ecological assets and deficits using about 5,400 data points per country per year. This is the most comprehensive look that we have at how humans are affecting the ecosystem of our planet.

 The importance of this work can’t be overstated. “If you don’t have basic tools to understand the resources we use compared to what is available, it’s hard to avoid ecological bankruptcy,” Wackernagel told Treehugger. And if anyone would know, it’s Wackernagel. After years of looking at the data, he is sure of one thing: We can’t keep living like this.

“Globally, it now takes one year and four months to regenerate what we use within one year. We are in a state of ecological overshoot, on an unsustainable path.”

To make a lasting change, Wackernagel believes we must start building cities more compactly, creating communities that have everything we need on a daily basis and methods of public transportation to get to those places. “The assets we create today can be future-friendly or not,” he told Sustainable Cities. “Future-friendly infrastructure — cities and buildings designed to be resource efficient, zero-energy buildings, and pedestrian or public transit-oriented transportation systems — can enable great lives with small ecological footprints.”

 The former director of the Sustainability Program at Redefining Progress in Oakland, California, and past director of the Centre for Sustainability Studies/Centro de Estudios para la Sustentabilidad in Mexico is working to get the word out on his findings, having authored or contributed to more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and a number of books on sustainability, including Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth and Sharing Nature’s Interest: Ecological Footprints as an Indicator of Sustainability. He’s worked on ecological issues for organizations in North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia, and continues to get out his central message: “The two-word definition of sustainability is one planet.”

 For more information on the Global Footprint Network, click here.

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