Ecological Footprinting and Global Futures

Global Human Population


The United Nations World Food Program recorded for 2016-17 that 795 million people in developing countries did not have enough food and 12.9% of the populations of developing countries were undernourished. Starvation caused 45% of all children’s deaths – 3.1 million children died of starvation.


Clearly we are not feeding large numbers of people. Yet, with political, religious and commercial encouragement, the global population is still growing, especially in developing countries. We now are 7.5 billion.


There is an underlying unequal distribution and use of resources that is part of the problem. Roughly 85% of resources are used by developed countries and only 15% by the developing countries where food shortage is most critical. But redirecting resources away from the developed countries is unlikely. They also have most of the 10% of people who have captured most of the financial resources of the globe and have done so with the conviction that profiting in this manner is both moral and expected. Most of the very rich may support charitable programs but will not share their base of wealth, and resources, globally. Even in their own developed countries, consuming the majority of global resources, the many of the people are not well-fed and not satisfied. In the United States about 15 million (4.9%) are without jobs. In Europe 43.4 million (8.5%), in the UK 3.1 million (4.8%) and here in Canada about 2.5 million (6.9%). Globally, 199.4 million people are unemployed. These unemployed people are not anxious to send resources to the starving in developing countries. Further, all the indicators clearly show that increasing the global population is inconsistent with the promise of a fulfilling job for everyone.


Ecological Footprinting


The assumption that to increase the global human population is desirable is promoted by an economic system. That system depends on consumption and a socio-economic structure that accepts increasing debt as acceptable. This system results in sequestering of most wealth in as few as acceptable. The alternative logic is that the planet has a limiting capacity for the human population and that the limited production by the globe must be shared to support that limited population. Why should we accept this latter less rosy logic?


Research has shown us how much of the global productive capacity each of us uses currently. We can multiply that amount by the number of persons on the planet to get the total amount of production capacity we are using. This amount of productive capacity would, right now, require 3.7 planets like ours to support us all. This is the insight given by Ecological Footprinting, a concept produced by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990’s and now widely accepted by the scientific community.


Ecological Footprinting measures the amount of biologically productive area that each person (or each city) requires to produce all the resources they consume and to process all the wastes they produce in a year. The amount of biologically productive area, cropland, forest, fishing ground, is totaled for the globe. What the planet can produce is limited by the amount of sunlight that reaches productive areas. The world average productivity for a given year is calculated. By multiplying the number of people by the number of hectares of world average productivity they require to produce their resource needs and treat their wastes, we can calculate the total hectares required to support the global population under the current system. It turns out to be 3.7 times what is available on our globe. How can that be?


We are actually eating, burning and contaminating our resource production facilities. By pushing agricultural land into too intense production we lose and degrade topsoil at rates faster than new topsoil can be produced. By over-harvesting forests, we reduce the capacity of the residual forest to produce the forest products we will need in the next cycle of forest regeneration. By failing to treat mine wastes properly, acid mine drainage reduces the fish production in lakes and rivers. We are not living off the interest, we are eating up the capital, burning the factory to keep warm.


As greater proportions of the global population become urbanized, they become disconnected from the biologically productive hectares that we draw our resources from. Thus in many developed countries, over 80% of the population is isolated from witnessing and understanding the overuse of resources. Political and economic systems adopt time scales that are much shorter than the time base needed to steward our resource production. Socio-economic structuring becomes directed by unpredictable availability of work and constant struggles with personal debt.


We depend solely on solar energy, stored by green plants, as the source of our food energy. That unavoidable fundamental limitation on human population numbers demands critical analysis. But the insight from such analytical thought threatens religious belief systems, cultural norms, and, above all, profiteering by encouraging consumerism. So we have forged ahead believing that a growing economy somehow overcomes the fundamental limitations of global productive capacity.


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