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The term “ecological footprint” was developed by environmentalists to describe the impact that an individual has on his or her environment. An ecological footprint takes a number of things into account such as car ownership, amount of garbage generated, how often the individual walks or rides a bicycle, and other things designed to gauge land and water usage. The concept of an ecological footprint was developed in response to concerns that people were not living sustainably, and that existing rates of consumption, especially in the First World, would result in resource deficiencies.
Growing concerns about global population pressure have led to initiatives which are designed to make human life more sustainable. According to environmental organizations, there are 4.5 useful acres on Earth for each person. Most people in the West have an ecological footprint that is far larger, meaning that there would need to be multiple planets to sustain a population consuming at that rate. People in impoverished nations have a much smaller ecological footprint, although growing populations and promotion of Western styles of life may lead to an increase.
The idea of an ecological footprint was conceived in 1992 by William Rees, a Canadian ecologist. Rees believed that finding a rough yardstick to measure consumption would help to illustrate the problems caused by population pressure and increases in consumption. Using data gathered all over the world, he showed that present rates of consumption and increase could result in a serious global problem in an alarmingly short amount of time. While the ecological footprint does have some inaccuracies, it is a solid starting point for a discussion about how humans use the environment.
Rees also showed that small changes could markedly reduce an ecological footprint, and that if Western nations worked together, they could greatly reduce the amount of resources they were consuming. Individual citizens could make a difference just as corporations and governments could, especially if they were shown concrete ways in which changes could be made. Some changes require drastic lifestyle alterations, while others are more simple and practical.
Ecological footprints are used as educational tools all over the world to show people how they interact with the environment around them. Simple online calculators which will show consumers their ecological footprints can be found at a number of sites, and are an interesting way to evaluate a lifestyle. In addition to providing a total ecological footprint, most sites show ways in which people can reduce their ecological footprints, based on the lifestyles they lead.