Friday, November 8, 2013

Forget What You've Heard: Humans Are Not Using More Than 1 Planet

On a global level, the popular "footprint" metric used to measure people’s ecological impact may not be very a useful after all.


How big is humankind’s "footprint" on the planet? That depends on how you measure it.

Since the mid-1990s environmentalists, politicians, researchers and others have often used a concept called the ecological footprint to quantify the relative health of the planet under the influence of human activity and industry. According to that measure, our footprint has outgrown the planet on which we tread: humans now use 1.5 Earths to support our well-being. The concept has even given rise to a mock holiday, called "overshoot day," which marks the point humans exhaust the renewable natural resources that should have sustained us for the entire year. This year it fell on August 20. 

But a new analysis suggests that the size of our seven-billion-person footprint has been mismeasured. "The original ecological footprint is a good metaphor and a good way of getting us thinking about overusing the planet, but what you really want a footprint to do is to be a management tool," says Peter Kareiva, co-author of the study, published November 5 in PLoS Biology. Kareiva is chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group that has used the ecological footprint concept from time to time. But now he is advocating for a better metric. "I would like people not to be satisfied with the current ecological footprint and try to come up with measures that really track the water, soil and all the ways we degrade ecosystems in a way that would become management metrics," Kareiva says.
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