How Much Nature Do We Have? How Much Do We Use? Mathis Wackernagel | TEDxSanFrancisco

Mathis Wackernagel

Mathis Wackernagel is a Swiss-born sustainability advocate. He is President of Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think tank with offices in Oakland, California; Brussels, Belgium, and Geneva, Switzerland.

Following is the full text of his TEDx Talk titled “How Much Nature Do We Have? How Much Do We Use?” at TEDxSanFrancisco conference.

Listen to the MP3 audio of this TEDx Talk:



Hello San Francisco.

This awesome planet is full with life and covered with diverse ecosystems. And the people living on this planet are technological wizards.

They have built spacecrafts to take the largest selfies ever of themselves. And if the resolution was a bit higher you would see them wave. And these people very much like you and me are incredibly voracious. To the extent that now it takes 1.6 planets to meet the demand that they put on nature.

In other words, their demand on nature is 60% more than what Earth can renew.

Or it takes 19 months to regenerate what they take in one year. How’s that possible?

Now, I’ve heard of some people who can spend more than what they earn. Or we can cut trees more quickly than they regrow, or we can fish more quickly than fish repopulate, or we can emit CO2 more quickly than the Earth can absorb that excess.

And like with money, if we continue to spend more than what we earn, the likelihood of financial bankruptcy is high, and the same thing is true with resources.

If we use more than what Earth can regenerate, over the long term, that means ecological bankruptcy, which means a very depleted planet with harsh life conditions.

My obsession is to avoid ecological bankruptcy through metric. Because how can we measure, how can we know, how much we use compared to how much we have available? And for that we developed an ecological accounting system, to tell us how big of a planet we have compared to how much we use. It’s called the Ecological Footprint.

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We borrow the thinking from farmers because they look at how much area is there that is productive, for grazing land, cropland, forestry, marine areas, that’s what we have, we call that biocapacity.

And then we compare that with how much we use, the Ecological Footprint for food, for fiber, for absorbing CO2 waste, for our urban areas, all areas that compete for space, and so we can add it up and know how much we use.

Then we can compare the two: how much do we use, how much footprint do we use compared to how much we have?

And when we do that, and we look at nations as if they were farms, this is how the world looked like when I was born.

Most countries here in green had far more biocapacity than what it took to support their population. And you could see some countries are already red: Europe, with the colonial heritage, they used more resources; Japan; United States is turning pinkish.

And in my lifetime it has changed to a world where now 85% of the world population live in countries that use more than what their own ecosystems can renew. And it’s different for every country.

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