A key tool in measuring which Neighbourhood group is the ‘greenest’ (i.e. the most environmentally sustainable) is ecological footprinting. Footprinting is a means of quantifying the impact of an individual’s lifestyle on the environment. Put another way, it is about finding out how much of the world’s capacity to produce food, water, energy, goods and services and to absorb the wastes that arise from these, is personally taken up by that person.
Ecological footprint results are generally expressed as global hectares (gHa). A global hectare is a hectare of Earth’s surface with average productivity. These can then be translated into Earths, i.e. the total number of Planet Earth’s needed if everyone in the world had the same ecological footprint (i.e. lifestyle and consumption habits) as the person taking the quiz.
The NZ average ecological footprint is 2.1 Earths. For more information on how this is calculated, see the NZ Footprint Project webpage.
What does ecological footprinting tell us?
Sustainability has been defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
To be environmentally sustainable then, the global average footprint needs to be less than one Earth. This would mean the rate at which we are consuming resources and generating pollution is comparable to Earth’s capacity to regenerate, but it is currently about 1.6 Earths.
Using a financial analogy, environmental sustainability means living off the interest of Earth’s natural capital while leaving the principal to provide this ongoing income into the future. Instead, since the mid-1970s, human demand is outstripping nature’s supply so we are liquidating the Earth’s natural resources and accumulating pollution in the environment (i.e. spending the principal) to meet the shortfall. If this continues, Planet Earth will eventually become ‘bankrupt’ and only be able to support a greatly reduced level of human activity and societal complexity. For more information on this see: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/gfn/page/earth_overshoot_day/
By definition all unsustainable activities come to an end. The choice before us as a species then is whether we choose to address this situation and hopefully avoid or minimise harmful consequences, or whether we wait for the catastrophe of a system collapse.