Appeared in German in Tages-Anzeiger, on September 16, 2016, page 13 (translated by Global Footprint Network)

Guest Comment – The inventor of the “Ecological Footprint” sees himself more as its discoverer – and explains the concept. From Mathis Wackernagel

What the Footprint tells us

I am often presented as the inventor of the Ecological Footprint. This is wrong, because I am its discoverer. Similar to Isaac Newton, who also did not invent gravity, but discovered it when an apple fell on his head. Or so at least we were told in primary school. What I have discovered with my colleagues through our resources studies, was that for everything we do, ecologically productive areas are needed to maintain these activities. We also realized that life competes for these areas. Therefore, one can add up these areas for which our demands compete. The sum of these areas is the Footprint, which then can be compared to the local or global areas that are available. These areas are more limited than the mineral or fossil reserves underground. The CO2 absorbing surfaces limits fossil energy, not their reserves below the surface.

What farmers have known for a long time

I admit, to compare myself with Newton is almost blasphemy. Because our discovery was not new. Farmers know that if they turn cropland into a meadow, less area is left to plant potatoes. Or if they put too many cows on a pasture, the cows become thin and unproductive. Friedrich Traugott Wahlen (the agricultural scientist who planned Switzerland’s agricultural transition for world war II)  had already noticed this just before the Second World War. Agricultural production in Switzerland was only enough to feed the Swiss for just six months per year. These six months could be stretched to nine through agricultural intensification and food rationing. Still, the thinner Swiss then had to import under great difficulty additional food.

The Footprint calculates how much productive area we require in order to meet all our material needs. Is our Footprint calculation wrong? Yes, almost certainly. The vast majority of critics say that we understate human demand. Our figures underestimate our dependence on nature. Still, our figures show that the Swiss demand for nature is at least four times greater than what the Swiss ecosystems can renew. If all humanity lived like the Swiss, then it would take more than 3 Earths. Humanity’s demand now exceeds 1.6 Earths.

How is this overshoot possible? As with the money: we can spend more than we earn. This leads to debt or the liquidation of our assets. In fact, we do live off the principle. Much of this represents our overuse of the atmosphere. Further, many places suffer from overfishing, the decline of the water table, overexploitation of forests, or loss of species. Countries can consume more than their ecosystems can regenerate because they can imports and can emit CO2 emissions to the global atmosphere. Today, Switzerland can afford this easily financially. But the question is whether we can afford this in the long-run. Reality is that we cannot throttle our consumption from one day to the other without much discomfort like moving to cold showers and eating hard bread. Our cities and power plants get replaced or adjusted only slowly, and so does population sizes. Therefore keep ourselves comfortable now and in the future takes foresight.

Switzerland is an innovative, forward-looking country. Thanks to foresight it can position itself well, and can turn problems into market advantages. The green economy invites us to take our destiny into our own hands. For if we believe that the resource problem in the world does not automatically solve itself, then there is no good argument to blindly continue with business as usual, and fall into an inevitable trap.

What is the ideal Footprint for Switzerland? There is no scientific answer. Ultimately, this is a bet. On the one hand, the advantages of not reacting and leaving destiny to voluntary good deeds are thin. On the other hand, the advantages of adapting to a new world, and set clear, reasonable targets, for instance achieving an average Footprint consistent with one Earth by 2050, is the best insurance for our long-term success.

Mathis Wackernagel, ETH engineer, is president of Global Footprint Network, an international research group in California.