Why Ecological Footprint Analysis Is Flawed

B
10 min readOct 16, 2023
Distorted view. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

Ecological Footprint Analysis is built on a number of assumptions, which might be true for the moment, but gives us the flawed impression that things could go on just fine if we made a few adjustments here and there. Nothing could be further from the truth. Is there a better way to understand our predicament?

The idea to measure how much land humanity would need to sustain its current population originates from prof. William E. Rees, an author from whom I learned the most about ecology, and whose work I highly admire. The concept was first floated in his study titled Revisiting Carrying Capacity: Area-Based Indicators of Sustainability published in 1992 — a worthy read, pointing out some very important facts. As usual with many great concepts though, it has been hijacked by international organizations, and now it’s used to massively sugarcoat the predicament we as a human species are in.

It’s common knowledge that we would currently need 1.7 Earths to sustain ourselves. It’s clear to understand why: we are using far more resources and releasing immeasurably more pollution than what could be regenerated or absorbed by Nature. We are by definition in ecological overshoot territory. OK, but how did we get to this number? Is it based on realistic assumptions about what is actually sustainable? First, let’s take a look at the definition of the very ecological footprint in discussion, posted on the Global Footprint Network, a think tank responsible for “Advancing the Science of Sustainability”. See if you could spot some of the flawed assumptions:

Ecological Footprint

A measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population, or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates, using prevailing technology and resource management practices. The Ecological Footprint is usually measured in global hectares. Because trade is global, an individual or country’s Footprint includes land or sea from all over the world.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ – one could ask. Mind you, and for the record, I’m no ecologist by training either. I’m an engineer who has spent his entire carrier (the last 17 years) working in the field of global manufacturing and supply chains of goods and services, and lately, of electric and hybrid vehicles. My professional experience has made me acutely aware of the importance and precarity of global trade in general, and physical material flows in particular. So when I read “using prevailing technology and resource management practices” and “because trade is global, an individual or country’s Footprint includes land or sea from all over the world” an alarm immediately went off in my head.

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The long term viability of both “prevailing technology” and “global trade” are two massive assumptions. While these statements are certainly true for the moment, most of us are completely unaware of the fact how temporal and unsustainable both are on the long run. Everything we do and call civilization by today’s standards depends on extracting and delivering raw materials into production plants (yes, including food) and converting them into something “useful” — i.e. things which then could be sold for a profit. All of this requires the expenditure of an immense amount of energy; more than 80% of which — largely due to technological reasons — still coming from fossil fuels. Just like half a century ago.

Source

The problem, or rather our predicament as a high-tech civilization is, that besides overheating the planet, fossil fuels are finite non-renewable resources and require ever more energy to get — together with all of the raw materials required to build high-tech stuff. Yes, that includes solar panels and nuclear power plants too… It’s not that we will be running out of these resources tomorrow, but that the virtuous cycle of more and more cheap materials, made available by more and more cheap fossil fuels, is now slowly turning into a vicious cycle; where less and less cheap fuel will make even less and less material extraction and conversion possible. (Open the linked articles if you are not sure what I mean by that).

The growth in material consumption has hit an invisible rubber ceiling, and has started to decelerate, only to rebound into an ever accelerating decline in the coming decades.

It must be understood, no matter how difficult to accept it, that in a finite world our “prevailing technology” and “resource management practices” are wholly and completely unsustainable, together with global trade. And that which is unsustainable will have to stop.

Take industrial agriculture for example. The heavy toil on the fields, which used to take up thousands of kilocalories a day, has been replaced by diesel fueled machinery. A finite fossil fuel with no practical and scalable replacement. Meanwhile yields from all kind of produce has doubled thanks to fertilizers made from nitrates, phosphate rock and potash — again, finite resources with no substitutes, and whose production is wholly dependent on the availability of natural gas and diesel respectively. Modern, mechanized agriculture is simply a non-starter without fossil fuels and finite minerals.

And the list doesn’t stop there: pesticides and herbicides, concrete, steel, plastics and basically all modern products from computer chips to garbage trucks are all dependent on fossil fuels and finite minerals to make and operate. The much touted shiny green new technologies require even more mining and manufacturing — activities which are continuously driving up the demand for more diesel, concrete and steel. This is not to mention the fact that the production of batteries, solar panels and wind turbines comes with a release of various toxins into the environment, and thus actively contributes to the destruction of many ecosystems… All this in a wane effort made at replacing finite fossil fuels with finite metals… and don’t get me started on recycling. Just take a look into the story of copper, a metal essential to all things electric.

Technology use is a limited offer on a finite planet — something which inevitably comes with releasing a lot of carbon-dioxide and the depletion of both natural and mineral resources.

With that all said a number of questions pops into mind. How does ecological footprint analysis incorporate the finite and very temporary nature of these technologies? How could we feed, clothe, house 8+ billion people without fertilizers, concrete, steel, plastics — all made available by fossil fuels and finite minerals? What is the true carrying capacity of the planet then, without the marvels of modern technology?

All this population boom in recent decades was made available by sucking aquifers dry, cutting down forests, harvesting fish beyond sustainable levels, powering agriculture with diesel and mining all the phosphate rock and potash we could find. What will happen when we no longer have adequate amounts of diesel to run heavy machinery, enough freshwater to water crops, or the ores and natural gas in place to make metals and fertilizers from? I mean we can’t recycle forever, nor fire up our tractors with wood… Once we use up our critical materials, they will be gone forever.

Frankly, the blind obsession with CO2 emissions, has pushed every such question to the back-burner. Yes, CO2 is still the main contributor to climate change, but this is not a “problem” which could be “solved” — only mitigated. Yes, emissions can be reduced by replacing conventional cars with EVs, or coal fired power plants with solar panels, but only as long as mineral reserves lasts, or there is still enough cheap fossil fuels to keep extracting them – paradoxical as it may sound.

Yet, despite all this, we calculate our footprint as if pushing CO2 emissions down while clinging onto all “prevailing technologies” and “resource management practices” (together with global trade) were possible without releasing gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere or depleting finite mineral reserves. Footprint calculations simply disregard this inconvenient fact and thus keep assigning more and more land to absorbing CO2 year after year, thereby pushing us into the 1.7 planet territory. Just take a look at the chart below:

Source: Global Footprint Network

This way of measuring our ecological footprint, however, gives us the impression, that if we could magically wish all the excess CO2 emissions away (which is technically impossible), we could continue with business as usual, and still be well under the one planet limit… With room to spare. Look:

Our global footprint without land assigned to CO2 absorption. Source

Wow, we barely scratch 0.7 Earths! According to this metric our planet could suddenly sustain 12 billion people! Wait a sec… What about wild animals and plants? Err, don’t they need some room too…? ‘Bah! To hell with all that, we will have holographic elephants then!’ Besides being completely energy- and minerals-blind, these calculations don’t leave any room for wildlife and undisturbed areas, despite being critically important for our survival. We already use half of all habitable land on Earth for agriculture, while treating the areas most people call “forests” as tree plantations. For the record, at least 30% of Earth’s productive land surface should be left totally undisturbed to preserve ecosystem services, like freshwater, pollinators and other insects, clean air and a healthy flora and fauna. Where are all those hectares accounted for? If one would add that 30% on top, it alone would make abundantly clear that we are already in a state of absolute overshoot. With or without CO2 emissions.

The real issue is, when it comes to assessing real carrying capacity, is that the use of fossil fuels, which take very little land to extract compared to the power they deliver, has added a tremendous amount of ghost acreage — as the late ecologist William R. Catton put it. Land, which would otherwise had to be used to grow food for draft animals, and to feed the poor peasants who had to eat twice as much just to be able to do all the heavy work. Without our modern technology, we would be literally over the one planet threshold, not just theoretically, humming and hawing how bad carbon emissions are, then taking a large bite from a pizza delivered to us on mountains of fossil fuels.

The irony is, that oil and the industrial and agricultural technology it made available, will leave us whether we want it or not. Climate change will then come as an added bonus on top.

After factoring all this into the footprint calculation, how many hectares would one person need to grow enough food for their family and for the draft animals helping to pull the plough? How many hectares out of those would then need to be deducted, because they turned out to be infertile after decades of industrial agriculture, the release of forever chemicals (PFAS), or salt water intrusion from rising seas? These are rather disturbing questions, not many of us willing to ponder, let alone ask on a fundraiser event for an environmental think tank. It’s better to advocate for wind and solar while there is still plenty of oil to go around, isn’t it?

The demise of our fossil based technology will leave us with a planet capable to feed only a fraction of our numbers today. How fast this process would unfold is anyone’s guess. I would say it would take roughly fifty years to fully transpire — with at least 90% of world population having lost access to these technologies — but who am I to tell? One thing seems to be sure: contrary to what most people would think, the situation will be much worse on the global North, especially in Europe than in Africa or say, India.

It is not so hard to see that a hectare in tropical Africa, for example, where you can grow food all throughout the year with 3–4 harvests annually, and where big ag’s presence is not so pervasive, could easily support a much larger population in a post-carbon age than the same area in Northern Europe, with only 1 harvest a year, and a lot of energy needed to heat homes. Without affordable oil, making global food trade or industrial scale agriculture possible (together with fertilizers doubling harvests) it would be impossible to feed 742 million people on this small peninsula of Eurasia. (For your information pre-industrial Europe could feed just about a quarter of that number, 195 million people in 1800). A thing to mull over.

Source

None of this could be foreseen in ecological footprint analysis. „Prevailing technologies” and „global trade” mask the inconvenient reality of 4 billion people’s life becoming fully dependent on undisturbed resource and fossil fuel extraction. Ecological footprint analysis, as it stands today, thus serves to perpetuate the myth that it is possible to save and continue with this civilization with a few adjustments here and there. Nothing could be further from the truth: we live in a wholly unsustainable system already experiencing severe stress. As fellow blogger Alan Urban summed up brilliantly:

As long as people believe we can save this civilization, they’ll continue with business-as-usual while looking for solutions that only make the problem worse. Sure, it’s possible that wind and solar power could extend the life of our civilization by a few years, but that means we’ll do even more damage to the biosphere, making the inevitable collapse that much more painful.

However, if people accept that modern civilization is unsustainable, they’ll start learning how to fix things, how to grow their own food, how to use less energy, or how to repurpose and upcycle garbage.

Until next time,

B

Note: here is a really good round table discussion on how to move on, and how to build this reality into a vision of a viable future.

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B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/