Meet the Bookkeeper: An Interview with Mathis Wackernagel of Global Footprint Network

Is it possible to create a checks-and-balances spreadsheet for the planet? Mathis Wackernagel thinks so. As the executive director of Global Footprint Network, he works with corporations, non-profit organizations, and national governments to help calculate and reduce their planetary impact. His goal? Only to bring about sweeping global change. Considered by some to be the most illuminating tool in understanding and achieving sustainable development, GFN's Ecological Footprint program isn't just a diet for a small planet; it's an all-encompassing holistic regime that measures humanity's demand on the Earth's natural capital and the ability—or lack thereof—for the planet to regenerate its resources. Here, TH talks with Wackernagel about One Planet Living, the looming threat of World Overshoot Day, and why we need to get our ecological finances in order. ::Global Footprint Network
The following is a transcript from TreeHugger Radio. You can listen to the audio here.

TreeHugger: So the Global Footprint Network was recently awarded a three year, $1,015,000 grant from The Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship You've said you're going to use the money to achieve your organization's Ten in Ten program, that is, institutionalizing ecological footprint in at least ten key nations by 2015. How did you target the countries—these ten countries—and what's the strategic plan for implementing this process?

Mathis Wackernagel: The premise is pretty simple. It's like bookkeeping for our finances, if we don't know how much we earn and how much we spend, it's hard to know whether we go bankrupt or not, and the same thing is true for our ecology. If you don't have basic tools to understand the resources we use compared to what is available, it's hard to avoid ecological bankruptcy. And that's why believe the ecological footprint is an important tool, not just at the national level but also at the local level or for individuals to understand to what extent we depend on ecological resources and to what extent they're available and to what extent we're exposing ourselves to ecological risks.Now, some countries are starting to recognize that as well, that as ecological scarcity increases worldwide, having an ecological deficit—or using more resources than what is available domestically—becomes an economic burden because they have to come from somewhere, either by liquidating the country's own assets or by importing them from somewhere else. So, countries are starting to recognize that and have opened the doors for initial conversations. So the way we engage with nations initially is just to have a scientific collaboration and say, "Is the information that we generate on your country accurate? Is it consistent with your statistical data points?" And that's what we have been doing with Switzerland, to start with; we are now in the process with Japan to review the numbers for their country. And now we are starting conversations as well with United Arab Emirates and we will be starting a similar collaboration with Belgium and with Mozambique. So a variety of different countries, essentially all in a scientific endeavor to say, "Is this solid information?" and then the next step would be to find out what does it mean for the country, what's the best path forward for them?

TH: So, most of our listeners are probably familiar with the ecological footprint quizzes that they've seen online, asking them questions about their cars, their home energy use, and so forth, and then telling them how many planets we'd need if everyone lived like us. How do you move from these sort of broad quizzes to calculating the footprint of a country, like Switzerland, as you mentioned?

Mathis: It may be surprising, but in some ways, at least scientifically, it's actually more accurate and easy to calculate the footprint of a whole nation than of an individual because most countries have pretty good statistics that collect the kind of information about their agricultural productions, or how many potatoes are being grown, for example, and then also about the trade statistics—how many of the potatoes are being exported, how many are being imported, and the net result then is how many potatoes are being consumed within the country—and that we can do that not just for potatoes but for any of the resources they consume and then we can add up the areas necessary to produce these resources and compare those amounts of areas necessary to produce these resources with the areas available within the country, or within the world, so that gives us a simple accounting framework to then find out for a whole country. For example, Switzerland, where I am from, how many Switzerland's does it take to support Switzerland or how many Americas does it take to support the United States?

TH: So, paint the picture of what modern sustainable life looks like in a first world country with a high quality of life. How far away is that from happening?

Mathis: I mean there are all kinds of possibilities of how it could look like. In some ways we see ourselves like the accountants, like in the financial world there are accountants and then you can go to financial planners and say what kind of a life do I want to live. Do I want to kind of invest more in savings or do I want to spend the money more on fast cars or a house or whatever it may be. So, how we want to use our ecological resources obviously is up to us. But the good news is that there are quite a few examples of how we can have great quality of life on much smaller footprints.

One striking example—and it's not even ecologically motivated—is that Italy, for instance, uses about two-and-a-half times less resources, or as the footprint per person, about two-and-a-half times smaller than the United States. Many Americans love to go to Italy on holiday and enjoy the lifestyle there, being able to walk around towns and sit in open squares to drink coffee and eat pizza, etc. So it's not a miserable life in Italy and they provide this life on two and half times less resources. What's the key to that difference? We would say it's the way cities are constructed. Particularly, if you have more compact cities where you can walk around, that are pedestrian-friendly, and where you can live downtown. Where it is a more urban life [that's] possible. Where you can get food markets and people can buy food from local providers and so have less energy-intensive food and possibly also fresher and more interesting food. These are kind of the ways we can structure our lives to make them more effective ecologically speaking and often also with a higher quality of life.

Another initiative, for example, on a smaller scale, called One Planet Living, which I think probably best captures what this state of development means: How can we live best on one planet?—so, "One Planet Living." They are developing little communities, or communities for up to actually 8,000 households or so, where they tried to design them so well that a "One Planet" lifestyle becomes possible. The first one that they have built—and the first one they've built in the U.K.—is called BedZED, doesn't fully get down to a One Planet lifestyle, but significantly cuts the footprint compared to the average U.K. citizen. The quality of life is so high that the people who lived there at BedZED development, when you ask them, they don't actually mention the ecological features. They just say that it is a much nicer place to live in. It's such a great community and also the comfort level of the housing is so high because they're well insulated and therefore there's less draft and just feel much better climatically to live in.

TH: So, that's an excellent example of smart growth, but how do we deal with the parts of countries, or the parts of towns and communities, that are already developed? You're working with Scotland, for example, which the Global Footprint Network has determined needs to reduce it's footprint by 75 percent by 2050 in order to live within the One Planet scheme that you've talked about, how do you make that happen within existing communities?

Mathis: Essentially, the principle is quite simple. We call the slogan "Slow things first." When you recognize that infrastructure put in place today has a longevity of 50 to 80, or even more, years—I mean, if you build a house, essentially the way we build our houses today in our infrastructure will determine how we will consume for decades to come.

So the question really becomes, today, are we building traps for ourselves, or opportunities? And yes indeed, a big part of the infrastructure is already built, but we continue to reshape and redirect our infrastructure with every additional house we build, with every additional highway we build, or public transportation system that we build. So it's putting the choices more clearly in front of decision makers—who do choose today whether we should add more bus lines or whether we should extend a highway or we should build more parking spaces—to understand what are the implications of investing in these infrastructures.

It's not that different from, like for example, an engineer building a bridge, they build the safety factors into bridge and say, we want to make sure this bridge will work for decades to come. And in the same way, we can apply these kind of principles to cities and say, are we making cities future-friendly? Are we preparing them to live on lower footprints with a higher quality of life? Because cities worldwide, and regions, they compete for ecological resources. And those cities that are able to provide the highest quality of life on the least resource consumption will be the most competitive ones in the long run.

TH: Now, some recent reports have suggested that if developed nations continue to use our natural resources as we have been, then global ecosystems and economies could be in some serious trouble, and really within the next few decades. But a conversion to a low impact lifestyle has heretofore been largely voluntary. How do we make governments care now?

Mathis: It is true that if we add it up, the most moderate scenarios about the future— moderate in the sense of slow population growth, quite rapid expansion of agricultural production, very low growth in future emissions, as would be the most moderate scenario of IPCC—if you add them all up into one global scenario, it would look like we would be using about twice the planet's capacity by 2050. And we believe that's ecologically not feasible. So, it will lead to declines and collapses. Now, such declines and collapses are already happening today; it's not something new or unheard of if you look at fisheries collapses even, for example, in Canada or the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have had quite massive declines in fisheries, as an example. But even whole countries are suffering from ecological scarcity, if you think of Haiti or what is happening in Darfur and Rwanda, etc. There are countries and places in the world already that are experiencing these kinds of collapses.

I think what we see is that countries are starting to recognize that it is not just good thing for the globe as a whole, but it is essentially a competitive strategy for each country to make sure they can live well using fewer resources. Otherwise, there would be cost explosions or disruptions that will be severely undercutting the ability for people to live well.

Now, have governments reacted fast enough? I think we are still pretty slow. I think countries still are more worried about immediate threats of economic downturns, or unemployment, which are serious issues. But I think if we do not systematically address resource constraints, then we will not be able to resolve any of the issues effectively. Some countries have taken much more proactive measures. You see long term commitments that probably people think are not really action yet, like Tony Blair saying that we need to reduce future emissions around 60 percent, or Arnold Schwarzenegger making similar kinds of statements. But then there are other governments that are putting quite massive amounts of money into preparing another kind of future.

Actually, I was just in the United Arab Emirates where I was surprised to see to what extent the government there is very actively investing in fossil fuel alternatives. So, they have a large fund for renewable energy options, because they recognize that things will change, and will need to change, and if they are prepared ahead of time from others, then they will be able to maintain their well being as opposed to those who just put their heads on the sand.

TH: So one final question for you, Mathis. Last year, your organization declared October 9 as World Overshoot Day, meaning that for the rest of the year we are in ecological debt, so to speak. Or put in another way, by October 9 humans have used up all the resources that nature could regenerate that year. Any predictions of when the World Overshoot Day will be this year?

Mathis: We have not been able to calculate the Overshoot Day for this year yet. In the last years, the increase of the ecological footprint globally has been between one and two percentage points. Now, one or two percentage points do not seem a large step but they are cumulative and they add up, and it should be actually reversing. So with every percentage point that we grow our overshoot, the Overshoot Day will come three days earlier. The Overshoot Day essentially is at the point where, in aggregate, we used up all the resources for that year and the rest of the year we live on degradation.

TH: Okay. So beginning of October, folks. There you have it. Something like that.

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