The purpose of this post is to make a comparison between what humans demand from their environment and what the environment is capable to supply. In order for such a comparison to be possible and meaningful, one must be introduced to the terms of Ecological Footprint and Carrying Capacity.

The ecological footprint is a number that expresses how much “nature” the lifestyle of a certain group of people requires. It depends on a number of variables, with the two most important being one’s country and one’s GDP. The ecological footprint expresses “the amount of land and ocean area required to sustain your consumption patterns and absorb your wastes on annual basis”. An easy quiz that estimates your Ecological Footprint can be found here.

The carrying capacity is the maximum population of a certain species that an environment can indefinitely, meaning that the environment can provide sufficient food, water and other necessities. For example, according to howstuffworks.com, earth’s carrying capacity for humans is anywhere between 2 and 40 billion people. The range is so wide because there are huge differences between the “lifestyle” of various countries around the world.

The term “lifestyle” may seem strange in such a concept. Although one understands what “lifestyle” stands for, it is rather difficult to make comparisons between different lifestyles and their impact on the environment. In order to make comparisons possible, one can compare between the most determining factor of “lifestyle”, which is the Gross Domestic Product of each country. This way, a direct relation between GDP and ecological footprint can be made, making conclusions about certain lifestyles and their impact  on the environment.

The following table shows the relation between the ecological footprint of each nation and its GDP. It also shows the proportion relative to world average and the proportion relative to world area available, which expresses the ratio between the needs of each country and the available area.

Country EF (hectares per person) – (data from ecological footprint) Proportion relative to world average Proportion relative to world area available Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita –(get data from CIA Worldfactbook)
Colombia 1.9 0.61 0.73(1.9/1.78) $10,400 (2011 est.)
China 1.84 0.59 1.03 $8,500 (2011 est.)
Bangladesh 0.6 0.19 0.33 $1,700 (2011 est.)
United Arab Emirates 15.99 5.16 8.98 $48,800 (2011 est.)
Uruguay 4.91 1.58 3.11 $15,300 (2011 est.)
Burundi 0.75 0.25 0.42 $600 (2011 est.)
Australia 8.49 2.74 3.09 $40,800 (2011 est.)
Nepal 1.01 0.32 0.57 $1,300 (2011 est.)
New Zealand 9.454 3.05 5.31 $28,000 (2011 est.)
World Average 3.1 1.0(3.1/3.1) 1.74(3.1/1.78)  
Greece 5.58 1.8 3.13 $26,600 (2011 est.)
India 1.06 0.34 0.59 $3,700 (2011 est.)
Germany 6.31 2.03 3.54 $38,400 (2011 est.)
Libya 4.36 1.41 2.45 $14,100 (2010 est.)
United States 12.22 3.94 6.86 $49,000 (2011 est.)
Your personal footprint 2.26 0.73 1.27  

As it can be clearly seen on the table above, if we consider GDP the independent variable, there is a positive relation between the GDP and Ecological Footprint, meaning that the more money an individual makes, the better living conditions he enjoys and the more he harms the environment. This observation is quite shocking, since one would expect that the more “developed” a country is and given that the respective society has solved all or more of its survival issues, the more it would care for its environment. This relation is made even clearer in the following graph, presenting the relation between GDP and Ecological Footprint.

One of the most interesting countries to discuss the relation between their GDP and Ecological Footprint, is Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country in South Asia. Its population is about 160 million people, while its area is about 150,000 square meters, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The per capita GDP of Bangladesh is $1,700, while its ecological footprint is just 0.6. This happens because Bangladesh is a “developing” country, meaning that the western lifestyle has not yet “infected” them. However, Bangladesh has shown a significant “progress” during the last years, meaning that they are embracing the western lifestyle and the western ecological footprint will inevitable follow.

A totally different case from Bangladesh is the United Arab Emirates. It is located in the Arabian Peninsula and its population is about 9 million. The per capita GDP is about $48,800, making it one of the richest nations worldwide. However, their ecological footprint, although they have not actually embraced the western lifestyle, is 15.99, one of the highest worldwide. The reason this happens is because of the extraction of huge amounts of oil, around which the whole economy of the country circulates. The high prices of oil, in addition to the less ecological concerned population has led to over exploitation of the natural resources of the country, thus giving such an ecological footprint.

Another interesting case is Australia. Australia is one of the most developed economies in the world and they have a per capita GDP of about $40,800. Australia’s ecological footprint is 8.49, which is about 2.5 times more than the world’s average. However, for a country with an industry that evolves around exporting commodities, such as gold and nuclear substances that require mining and are harmful to the environment, Australia has managed to preserve its unique ecosystem.

Greece is a rather disappointing case in terms of ecological footprint. It is a country of about 11 million people and the per capita GDP was about $26,600 in 2011, however it has decreased dramatically. Greece has an ecological footprint of 5.58. Although it may not appear as a very high GDP, taking into consideration that Greece is considered as one of the most “developed” countries worldwide, it is actually ridiculously high, since Greece does not produce anything. There is no industry in Greece, let alone heavy industry, and there are very few exports of commodities. Consequently, Greece has such an ecological footprint in order to cover its own needs. Given its population, one can understand the huge damage the environment suffers in order for us to cover our needs, such as energy needs, in ways that are possibly the most harmful to our environment. Moreover, things may get even worse since the efforts that had began before the economic crisis towards a more environmental friendly Greece have, naturally, stopped, since nobody would care for the environment given that he cannot cover his own basic needs.

After taking a quiz on myfootprint.org, I found my EF to be 2.26, which actually surprised me. Although it is under the world’s average and way under the country’s average, it seemed quite high to me. Although I am not an keen environmentalist I tend to be careful about my attitude towards the environment, meaning that I recycle and I try not to consume more than I need. However, it appears that it is far from enough. If everyone followed my lifestyle, we would need 2.26 Earths to support us. What I understood from my EF is that as long as we maintain the same lifestyle and no drastic changes are made, even though we may think that what we do is enough, it is actually just an effort to relieve ourselves, while we are heading towards an environmental catastrophe.

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