Ghanaian writer, motivational speaker, and youth leadership coach Israelmore Ayivor is well-known for saying: “Show the world you are not here to just pass through. Leave great footprints wherever you pass and be remembered for the change you initiated.” While Ayovor understandably meant this in terms of inspiring people to have a positive impact, in terms of today’s word, the best positive impact would actually be inspiring people to have a negative impact – at least in environmental terms. However, as with many long-term objectives, it can be difficult to realize and understand where you are, where you came from, and what your next goal is. One of the ways to gauge progress in environmental sustainability is through measuring an ecological footprint.
Giving a broader overview of consumption of natural resources than the more familiar buzz term carbon footprint, which only assesses the emission of greenhouse gases, the ecological footprint seeks to measure the human demand on nature. To give a better understanding of what the term means, think of a person with a fixed income and a credit card: for a while, the person can spend above his income; however, the more excessively he spends and the longer that he attempts to live above his means, the more trouble it will cause him in the longer-term and the more difficult it will be to change habits.
Looking at the term itself, the first usage can be found in a 1992 article written for the academic journal, Environment & Urbanization, by William E. Rees, University of British Columbia professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which notes that: “The total area of land required to sustain an urban region (its ‘ecological footprint’) is typically at least an order of magnitude greater than that contained within municipal boundaries.” The “birth” of the concept and calculation/measurement method for the ecological footprint, however, were the product of a Ph.D. dissertation by Mathis Wackernagel, under Rees’ supervision, who originally termed it the more scientific and less understood “appropriated carrying capacity”. Reportedly, the name change was inspired by a computer technician who was overheard celebrating his new computer’s “small footprint”.
Breaking the term down into its components, we can also see some linguistic recycling as older words have been given newer meaning and use. Ecological, coming from the root word ecology, and meaning ‘the science of understanding of the relationship between living things and their environment’, is a combination of the Greek terms oikos and -logia, literally meaning ‘study of habitation’. Initially used in a general sense in Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man in 1879, the term was repurposed in a 23 May, 1969 issue of newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, which wrote: “In Udall’s analysis, widely shared by conservationists, a ‘third wave’ was building—an ‘ecological’ movement that would treat resources, environment and man himself as a single, intricate ‘web of life’.” Footprint, the compound of foot, from the Proto-Germanic *fōts (meaning, well, ‘foot’), and print, from the Latin premere (meaning ‘to press or impress upon’), was originally used to mean a literal impression of a foot in 1552 and, in a figurative sense, a trace of something, in Samuel Purchas’ 1625 work, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes; yet, the recycled sense of leaving a lasting environmental impact was first advanced in the U.S. Senate, via the National Park Service Concessions Policy: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Parks, Recreation, and Renewable Resources of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 1979, remarking that: “An alternate proposal that would remove environmental footprint from Yosemite Valley..would remove a number of buildings, consolidate service, and reduce somewhat the number of employees.”