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 how ecological sustainability relates to factors such as inequality in economic and consumption patterns for the rich and poor (although as you learned from the readings in Lab 2 there are more dimensions to inequality than wealth). We will explore issues of lifestyle, consumption, and 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 consumption patterns to that of a person or an organization (company) in other circumstances.    To be ecologically sustainable given current, global averages of arable land and population sizes that amount of land has to support, each person living on the planet should be supported by no more than four acres of land for their total ecological footprint. However, the average American ecological footprint is roughly eight times that amount! This "footprint" includes the amount of area needed to support your food, housing, transportation, goods and services, and carbon use. In this lab you can explore several different aspects of this footprint, including for example whether we can change the land support required by altering how we manage the land.

Ecological and social problems have historically been considered distinct issues, even consigned to separate government agencies in the U.S.; however, these problems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. As a country (the U.S.) we are slowly realizing that we cannot protect our environment without addressing the underlying social issues of inequality and injustice that are related to ecological degradation. [Note that while our country may be moving slowly, many people and groups have been screaming for some time that we must change!] 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 fair and both socially and ecologically sustainable.

For decades western society has sought to classify economic systems along the lines of "more or less developed" in the sense of industrialization, and today you may hear this referred to as the Global North (more industrialized) and Global South (less industrialized) nations. There are at least two main problems with these classifications. First, they are derived from a colonialist perspective by people with power, privilege, and access, and thus they can serve as value judgements or even be dehumanizing for other groups or cultures. Second, there is a gross homogenization of people, lifestyle, culture, society, and way of life when entire hemispheres of the world are placed into a single category. The reality is that throughout the world we find mixed cultures, economic status, lifestyle, and "ecological footprints" of how people live. At the same time, however, it is critical to recognize that there are real differences in opportunities and resources that affect people's ability to mitigate or adapt to pressures such as environmental degradation and climate change that affect human prosperity and wellbeing. We can't simply sweep those differences under a rug and forget them. Therefore, we need a way of recognizing this diversity without resorting to negative stereotypes such as "being underdeveloped". In this lab exercise you will be able to recognize that diversity specifically in terms of calculating the ecological footprint of different people or companies or institutions.

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 (i.e., arable land) per person. Therefore, at the current global population if everyone used only 1.6 hectares the planet would be ecologically sustainable. If people consume more than the equivalent of 1.6 hectares per person more planets would be needed 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 the footprint. For example, if your first two scenarios were from the perspective of a relatively affluent lifestyle, run the footprint calculator for a person with a different lifestyle (could be a parent or grandparent), or someone with an very extravagent lifestyle (pick your billionaire).  As an alternative, you could focus more on a company or industry like Amazon, or an institution like the University of Michigan.

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.