Global Change: Global Challenges Labs

Our Ecological Footprint


Updated 1 Oct 2021


Our Ecological Footprint and its Relationship to Economic, Social, and Ecological Sustainability


How ecologically sustainable is your lifestyle?


The goal of this lab is to explore inequality in economic and consumption patterns for the rich and poor.  We will explore issues of lifestyle, consumption, affluence as they intersect with the concept of sustainability. We will each examine the degree to which our own living and consuming habits are sustainable by calculating our  Ecological Footprint on the planet, think about ways to decrease our consumption patterns, and compare our consumption to a hypothetical person in the developing world. To be ecologically sustainable, each person living on the planet should consume no more than four acres of land for their total ecological footprint.  However, the average American ecological footprint is roughly eight times that amount!  

Ecological and Social problems have historically been considered distinct issues, consigned to separate government agencies; however, these problems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. We are slowly realizing that we cannot protect our environment without addressing the underlying social issues that are causing ecological degradation.  Furthermore, poverty and environmental decline are deeply rooted in today's economic systems.  Thus, we need to consider ecology, economics, and sociology to create an economy that is both socially and ecologically sustainable.


Assignment - Ecological Footprint and Questions

Please calculate your ecological footprint using the simple online Ecological Footprint Calculator. If you live in the dorms and don't know critical information, like electricity charges, then use your family's or friend's household information. Remember, worldwide there exist 1.6 biologically productive hectares per person.  Therefore, at the current global population if everyone used only 1.6 hectares we would be ecologically sustainable. If people consume more than the equivalent of 1.6 hectares per person we would need more planets to support the population and therefore would be living unsustainably.

In Table 1 write down your footprint for the amount of hectares that you consume for your:





·         Services

·         Mobility

         Total Footprint

         Number of Planets Needed


Answer these questions for your assignment.

Question 1. Create Table 1 and fill in your numbers for Scenario 1. Do you find your consumption level surprising? How do you feel about it? (2 points)

Now redo your ecological footprint and determine what things you could easily change in your consumption patterns to reduce your ecological footprint.  Once you have made some changes to your consumption patterns, write down your footprint for the amount of hectares that you consume related to carbon, food, housing and goods/services.

Table 1. Table of Ecological Footprint Results (2 points)

Footprint for:

Scenario 1

  Your Normal Consumption

Scenario 2

 Your Decreased Consumption

Scenario 3

 Different Scenario

Carbon (tons)


Food (hectares)


Housing (hectares)


Goods (hectares)


Services (hectares)


Mobility (hectares)


Total Footprint (hectares)


Number of Planets Needed


Question 2. Fill your numbers into the table for Scenario 2.  What did you change to decrease your footprint? Do you think making these changes are realistic for you? Why or why not? (2 points)

Question 3. How do your consumption patterns translate to pressures on the environment?  How are your consumption patterns connected to ecological, social and economic factors? (2 points)

Come up with a new scenario and explore your footprint. For example, if your first two scenarios were from the perspective of developed nations, run the footprint calculator for a person living in a developing nation.

Question 4. Fill in the table for the third scenario. Explain the scenario you chose and reflect on how the results are different from scenario 1 and 2. (2 points)

More Resources

         A more detailed Household Ecological Footprint Calculator

         Reading (older, but good background information):Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (.pdf)

         Reading: You may want to familiarize yourself with concepts of ecological footprints and sustainability by reading the article "Living Planet Report 2020

         PowerPoint presentation: Moving Toward a Less Consumptive Society from the WorldWatch Institute.

More Possible Questions for Discussion

*Think about the possible answers, but do not write this up in your assignment. We will discuss these in class.



Rees, W.E., and M. Wackernagel. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1996.

Venetoulis, J., D. Chazan, and C. Gaudet.  2004.  The Ecological Footprint of Nations.  Redefining Progress, Oakland, CA.