previous ecostory 83/2008 next
Footprint, Sustainability and Time - a Glossary       D - E - F
Last update: 27 January 2012

back | home | sitemap | basic facts | balances | climate | energy | sustainability | water
BPE Compact

Climate Change


Economic Growth
Energy Crisis
Fossil Energy
Hope and

Human deve-
  lopment index


Peak Energy





Time Horizons
Also Compare (new window): Overshoot footnotes
top of page E - D - F

Our "footprint" is the impact that we have upon the earth. Our Environmental Resource Use footprint comprises all resources that we use, reduce, deplete or damage, as well as the wastes we generate, including greenhouse gases. Our resources include all living creatures (biodiversity) as well as minerals, water, soils, and a normal climate. Most of the resources we use are non-renewable and much of the damage is non-repairable.

Our impact on the earth can be represented by the equation         I = P x A x T
Impact (our footprint)
              = Population (size)
                          × Affluence (welfare)
                                        × Technology. [cf. the Technology factor of I=PxAxT]

A valid quantification of humanity's Environmental Resource Use (or "impact" or "footprint") is difficult and debatable. The increasing Environmental Resource Use can be observed by the quantifiable decrease of resources, increasing damage, deforestation, pollution, and climate change. Compare: Population Growth & I=PxAxT

The "Ecological Footprint" is the theoretical concept by Wackernagel and Rees, accounting for the consumption of biological i.e. renewable resources only (compare ecostory 54/2006).
The Environmental Resource Use footprint comprises all resources that humanity consumes, water, topsoil, minerals, biodiversity, fish, a normal climate, and so on. I have no measure for the weight that we exert upon the planet but it is absolutely sure that we have overshot the earth's carrying capacity by far. Most of these non-renewable resources are being depleted at a very high rate. Once gone, they can never be replenished or recreated. They will be gone forever, leaving nothing for our children.

"Sustainability" is a state of balance between resource use and the regenerative capacity of the earth. Our lifestyles are "sustainable" when we use no more resources than nature can replenish and if we produce no more wastes than nature can deal with.

"Sustainable Development" is a development that can go on unchanged for a very long time, hundreds or thousands of years. Humanity with our potential has existed for 100,000 years and we have learned to write 6500 years ago. Sustainable Development excludes continued growth (expansion) on a planet which is finite. Unfortunately, "Sustainable Development" is commonly used in delusionary ways, that make believe that development could occur without increasing our Environmental Resource Use footprint. Development is always equated to growth and growth is not sustainable. Compare economic growth...

Development is - for all practical purposes - an increase in the standard of living that people enjoy. Such development always entails an increase in resource use and waste production. This development is reflected in the increase of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the financial account of all goods and services over one year.
Development of human happiness is certainly possible. But even here there are limits, the seventh heaven being the highest level.

The Human Development Index (HDI, United Nations) is calculated from life expectancy, literacy, education, and per capita GDP. Whilst life expectancy can be achieved by a healthier way of living, thus reducing resource use. A longer life span, higher literacy and education lead to a higher standard of living and thus require increased resource use. Together with the GDP part of this index, we therefore conclude that a higher HDI level reflects lower sustainability.

If knowledge development replaces the production of consumer products, and if this teaching/learning activity uses less resources than those used for consumer goods, then the GDP and the corresponding resource use will be reduced.
Proponents of growth or "sustainable development" sometimes say that the development of knowledge would be "sustainable growth" or "sustainable development". However, when teaching/learning increases the GDP, it must be an activity that is additional to our other production. In the real world "development" is always calculated in GDP, which is money, which stands for material resources. The claim of "sustainable knowledge development" creates confusion only.

"Overshoot" is a situation where resource consumption and waste production are higher than the earth's carrying capacity. Overshoot is only possible because we deplete resource stocks that the earth has accumulated in the past at vastly different environmental conditions.

"Carrying capacity" is the number of people with a certain "footprint" that the earth can support for a long time, say many thousands of years. Humans with our shape and intelligence have lived more or less sustainably for some 100,000 to 200,000 years (4,000 to 8,000 generations). Overshoot started with the advent of agriculture and began to increase at the onset of our industrial age around 1750. Dramatic increase in overshoot started in the 20th century, especially after 1950.

"Technology" cannot recreate lost resources, nor revive extinct species. It cannot increase the earth's carrying capacity. On the contrary. At first sight technology may reduce pollution and reduce resource use in some areas of life. But ultimately it increases resource consumption since technology uses resources itself. The efficiency, i.e. return on investment, becomes virtually zero (cf. Grenzen, ROI table (German)). One dangerous and delusive technology is "genetic engineering". Proponents claim GE is needed to feed future populations but they forget that increased crop outputs require increased inputs. Another GMO illusion is the expectation that GE could increase crop sizes as populations grow. back

"Economic Growth" is expansion of human activity, i.e. the increase in production and consumption, normally accounted in Gross Domestic Product growth over one year. The GDP is the total monetary value of all economic activity, i.e. agriculture, manufacturing, so-called services (which include such very resource-intensive activities as transportation). The GDP does not distinguish between goods and "bads", i.e. work to repair accidents or outright harmful activities. So-called "sustainable growth", "immaterial growth", "different growth", "decoupled growth" are theoretical fiction, designed to maintain the growth paradigm that is cherished by most opinion leaders. back

"Resource Efficiency" means the lowest possible use of resources (materials) for a given product or service. Increasing a sub-optimal resource efficiency means using less material and this will lead to a short-term reduction of GDP. The savings are normally being used elsewhere and the resource use rebounds to previous levels.

"Population Growth" is the surplus between births and deaths in one year, presently approx. 75 million people a year. Provided all other conditions stay equal, the global population is expected to rise from 6.7 billion in 2008 to approx. 8.5 to 9.0 billion by 2050.
    Human Impact (I=PxAxT) "Not surprisingly, the impact of this population growth on the environment since 1750 has been extensive. Now, not a day goes by but we hear of droughts, floods, famines, wars over resources, extinctions, and in the last 20 years, the increasingly evident effects of global warming. This impact has been expressed in what has become known as the Commoner-Ehrlich Equation: I = P x A x T.
    This states that the impact (I) on the environment is directly proportional to the population size (P), the ‘affluence’ (A) {defined as the resources a population consumes and wastes} and technology (T) through which we (1) prolong life, (2) produce things more quickly and cheaply (feeds back into consumerism and affluence) and (3) grow food faster – which feeds back into ‘population’. All-in-all, this equation neatly summarises the impact of humankind on the planet."
    Source: The Sustainability of Human Populations: How many People can Live on Earth Martin Desvaux PhD MInstP CPhys April 2007. back up back to technology
Climate Change is a result of overshoot, i.e. man-made greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be absorbed by nature. Economic growth increases greenhouse gas emissions. The argument that mitigating climate change would only marginally reduce economic growth is doubly mistaken. Money and investment cannot deal with floods and droughts and landslides. And it fails to understand that growth actually increases the problem. Reducing the climate change problem to energy questions does not recognise the general resource and overshoot picture.

"Energy" is the resource we need to live and to work. We gain our energy from food, which is produced by natural processes. Stone age people took approx. one Human Energy Equivalent from nature, additional to food energy. Since there were few people, nature could easily regenerate.

"Fossil Energy" is the sun's energy that nature has accumulated over hundreds of millions of years, when there were no humans around. The exploitation of fossil energy, especially in modern time, has allowed humanity to grow in numbers and in per capita resource consumption to our present overshoot situation.

"Peak Energy" is the maximum extraction rates from fossil energy stocks. It is expected to happen any time soon. After that, the reduced fossil energy flows will lead to reduced industrial and agricultural production, and reduced mobility and transportation of goods. We will have to demechanise and relocalise and use the remaining oil very wisely for those societal tasks and products that have oil as a non-replaceable resource base.

A "Crisis" is a dangerous maximum, that can last a short instance or a number of years. After the crisis the situation can get either better, or so bad that collaps or death follows. (Compare: Indicator Species)

The "Energy Crisis" is a perceived shortage of fossil energy. The real energy crisis lies in the fact that temporarily abundant fossil energy availabilities have led to the present situation of exorbitant resource use, pollution, destruction of nature and overpopulation.

Hope and Optimism are good when they serve to keep us motivated. They are deadly sins when they prevent people from using the the means we have and instead make them wait for yet-to-be-invented-or-developed future technology. Compare: Hope - the "gift-wrapped curse" from Pandora's box of evils

The Reality Principle means that we must work with the methods and technology that we really have. Compare Illusions

Cristalline Intelligence is a thought pattern that has become rigid because of socio-economic conditioning. As a result it fails to recognise or it denies factual scientifc findings that are in conflict with beliefs, hopes, or paradigms.

Economics is the study of allocation of scarce resources among unlimited and competing uses. This widespread definition acknowledges that resources are not unlimited. Economic theory normaly assumes that people act rationally and that they always want more. The discipline of economics normally teaches that economic growth is desirable and sustainable. They don't tell us when we would have enough.

The BPE Compact is the community of Business, Politics, and the discipline of Economics, whose members are firmly embedded in the ideology of economic growth and the belief that hope, optimism and technology will solve all environmental problems.

Ingenuity refers to technological intelligence. In the environmental debate it is often used in connection with (investment in) education and research. The expectation is that ingenuity and research will produce new technologies that are hoped to deal with pressing environmental problems. The Financial Times recently suggested (editorial of 29.8.08) that "disordered ingenuity of the market" could be a solution for energy shortages. There is no guaranty, however, that investment in education and research will produce the hoped for solution.

The "Precautionary Principle" means "better safe than sorry". The risk of applying a new technology should not be taken if any adverse effects are irreversible. The possible costs of a technology gone wrong cannot be measured and /or held in balance against the expected (economic) advantages of it use.

"Environmentalism" is an attitude and/or activity that is meant to reduce human impact upon the environment. In its ultimate form in wants to avoid the demise of mankind because of the depletion of our resource base. An analysis of the goals and methods of many well-meaning people and organisations leads to doubts about the effectiveness of their theories and actions. The effects could be contrary to the aims.
UmverkehR, for instance, aims at reducing overshoot by promoting public transport. The net result appears being an overall increase in traffic and resource use. Organisations like UNEP, WWF, Ecological Footprint Network, or The Global Marshall Plan are arguably counterproductive to the goal of achieving a state of sustainability. We will try to explain why and how. contributions and feedback

Science is knowledge that is based on verifiable facts and processes which can turn hypothetical causes and effects into accepted "truths". Scientific research and debate, for instance, has lead to the recognition of man-made climate change and its likely effect of global warming and increasing weather extremes, floods and droughts.

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.
Often one of the ideas is a fundamental element of ego, like "I am a good person" or "I made the right decision." This can result in rationalization when a person is presented with evidence of a bad choice, or in other cases. Prevention of cognitive dissonance may also contribute to confirmation bias or denial of discomforting evidence. (source wikipedia 11 Oct 2008)

Religion refers to the belief in God(s), eternal life, heaven, or other supranatural matter. By definition, a belief can not be proven or verified. A religion is a collection of beliefs, often laid down in venerated scriptures.

Our Time Horizon is two or three generations. Humans with our physical development have lived more or less sustainably for some 4,000 to 8,000 generations (100,000 to 200,000 years). Current environmental data indicate that serious resource shortages and even total environmental collapse can happen any time soon. It can be triggered by a rupture in the biological food chain or in the supply chain of natural and processed resources, on which modern life and infrastructure depends. It can happen in five, ten or 25 years. The exact moment is not really important but it's closer than most people think. The question that begs an answer from our opinion leaders is when do they think that we will have had enough economic growth. When all people have a car? Before or after the burning of the last barrels of oil? When all lands above sea level is used by humans and no resources left for nature and wildlife?

An Indicator Species is an animal or a plant that offers a signal of the environmental condition of a local environment. A human society that has obviously reached their local limits of environmental sustainability can be called a "human indicator species". We believe the Kenyans could well be such a "human indicator species". Their environmental and social conditions appear having reached a crisis point, i.e. a critical point after which collaps occurs or things get better. (Compare: Crisis) Since the causes are growth and economic growth is still the offical societal policy and population growth is a taboo, the outcome can only be collaps. As such the Kenyans are a "human indicator species" for humanity.

A Virus is a bug that infects an organism and hampers its normal ways of functioning. Psychological research has inferred the existence of a growth virus. Statistics indicate that the growth virus is spread by formal education as well as by societal habits. It is highly infectious and has a high prevalence, especially among opinion leaders. In combination with the process of cristallisation, the affection is hightly resistant to reason and science.

Helmut Lubbers, September 2008

  • Ecologocal Footprint" compared to "Environmental Impact"
  • Ecological Footprint and Happy Planet Index
  • Area-based Sustainability - William Rees 1995
  • sustainability
  • ecological footprint - wikipedia
  • Rees interview on ecological footprint
  • home | site map a-z | ecostory | d | f
    ecoglobe reality since 1997