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The ecological footprint and handprint

The ecological footprint

The ecological footprint is a widely used and ubiquitous sustainability indicator that calculates how much land a person needs to cover the demand for resources caused by their lifestyle.

How is the ecological footprint measured?

To calculate the ecological footprint, we need the biocapacity of the Earth, which is theoretically available to humanity. The Earth’s biocapacity is the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to produce natural resources and absorb waste. It is a limit that indicates how much land and water is available to meet the needs of humans and other living beings and to absorb their waste.

The ecological footprint is determined by comparing our effective resource consumption and land use with the Earth’s biocapacity. This is because almost all of our actions require resources: food production, livestock farming, transportation and travel, energy generation, production of consumer goods, etc. Added to this is the disposal of waste and the sequestration of carbon emissions that we emit.

Visual metaphor for the ecological footprint

Earth Overshoot Day

Earth Overshoot Day is a concept developed by the Global Footprint Network. This day symbolically marks the point in the year when humanity has consumed more natural resources than the earth can renew within a year. In other words, from Earth Overshoot Day onwards, we are living beyond our ecological means.

To calculate Earth Overshoot Day, the global ecological footprint and the Earth’s biocapacity are taken into account. In 2023, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 1, which means that by that date, humanity had consumed the resources that the Earth can renew in one year – so we were living in ecological deficit for the rest of 2023.

Earth Overshoot Day is calculated every year and has shifted over time, coming earlier and earlier in the year in recent decades. This indicates that we are consuming more natural resources worldwide than the Earth can sustainably provide.

The calculations and concepts of Earth Overshoot Day and the ecological footprint serve to raise awareness of environmental sustainability and emphasize the need to reduce our use of resources and promote more sustainable lifestyles.

Field laden with garbage and an air-polluting factory in the background

Criticism of the ecological footprint

However, it is generally little known that the calculation of the carbon footprint is an invention of the oil company BP. In 2004, the company published a calculator on its website that made it possible for the first time to calculate one’s own footprint – coupled with an appeal to reduce it.
With this trick, the company evaded its responsibility as one of the world’s biggest polluters and cleverly shifted this responsibility onto consumers. The message that was successfully spread was that the blame and responsibility for the climate crisis lies with the consumers who use environmentally harmful products and not with the companies that manufacture and sell those products.

The fact is, however, that the Footprint can help to raise awareness of climate protection. It is an effective tool to show people how their individual actions affect environmental consumption. By visualizing their own ecological footprint, people can see which areas of their lifestyle have the biggest impact and where they can potentially make changes. However, it is important to realize that such efforts can have their limits. Often these limits are reached when climate-friendly options are either impractical, costly or unavailable. In addition, it is often difficult to identify which products are truly climate-friendly. And even with drastic restrictions, it is often almost impossible to achieve a climate-friendly footprint. This is not only due to individual choices, but also to existing social structures that make change difficult. This reality can easily lead to frustration and powerlessness.

To tackle these deficits, the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad, India, developed the concept of the ecological handprint the year 2007.


The ecological handprint

The ecological handprint is a concept that, in contrast to the ecological footprint, emphasizes the positive impact of our actions on the environment. While the footprint aims to quantify and reduce environmental consumption, the handprint focuses on measuring and maximizing positive contributions.

The handprint is based on the idea that everyone has the potential to have a positive impact on the environment, for example by using renewable energy, buying environmentally friendly products, participating in community projects or getting involved in nature conservation. These activities can help to conserve resources, protect the environment and promote sustainability.

Girl with green-painted hands

The ecological handprint offers an important complement to the ecological footprint and has a number of advantages from a sustainability communication perspective:

It emphasizes the positive impact our actions have on the environment, which can be motivating and promotes a sense of efficacy and commitment. By focusing on positive actions, the handprint gives people the feeling that they can actively do something to protect the environment and live more sustainably. It encourages a holistic approach to environmental protection that goes beyond mere consumption and includes actions such as community engagement, education and political activism. By emphasizing the importance of community and collective action, the Handprint fosters a sense of solidarity and cooperation in society. It can also stimulate the development of new environmentally friendly technologies, products and practices by focusing on positive solutions and innovation. Overall, the ecological handprint offers a positive and inspiring approach to environmental protection that can increase motivation to work towards a more sustainable future.

How is the ecological handprint measured?

The ecological handprint is currently not calculated precisely using concrete indicators such as CO2 emissions, as there is still no standardized measurement method. However, organizations such as Bread for the World and Germanwatch have developed approaches to help people increase their handprint in a playful way. The test generated by Bread for the World and Germanwatch asks 6 questions about the personality and activist character of the test person and generates possibilities, ideas and suggestions on how to get involved and make a contribution to environmental protection.
Although the handprint cannot currently be measured accurately like the carbon footprint, such initiatives serve as starting points to encourage people to take action and positively shape their impact on the environment.

Sounds exciting? Try it yourself! Click HERE for the ecological handprint test!

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