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Teaching with Ecological Footprints (Archived)

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Teaching Sustainability


Using ecological footprints calculators is one valuable starting point for educators wishing to engage students in important dialogues about wide ranging issues of environmental sustainability and resiliency.  Ecological footprints are calculations of natural resource use that assess environmental impacts.  Typically they measure levels of resource consumption relative to resource availability, and they may be scaled to address the consumption of individuals, campus communities, cities, or entire nations.

There are two general types of calculators, “Ecological Footprint” calculators that attend to resource use across many resource categories, and those that are more specific to individual resources, most notably “Carbon Calculators.”  Ecological footprint calculators are more complex since they address a broader diversity of natural resources and their uses, and they typically measure resource use against the total amount of resources available, thus accounting for some approximation of the natural limits to consumption.  Carbon Calculators are measures of carbon resource consumption and are particularly useful as they pertain to one of the most significant environmental threats and policy issues of our time, namely climate change.  They arguably are also good proxies for resource use generally since fossil fuel use is deeply embedded in all forms of consumption.  Usually carbon calculations do not involve a measure of the total natural stock of carbon-based fuels or other resources, although their results may be analyzed in the context of levels of atmospheric pollution thought necessary to curb such problems as climate change.

Footprint Calculators

There are many varieties of ecological footprint calculators.

Classroom Uses of Footprints

The teaching moments afforded by footprint calculators are many and may be found in courses across the disciplines:

  • Making the invisible visible.  Much of our consumption and its many environmental impacts are not immediately obvious since they are obscured by our limited knowledge of any number of complex extraction and production processes.  Ecological footprints encourage investigation and discussion of these processes and thus afford many opportunities to consider more fully human impacts on the natural world.
  • Ecological literacy.  Footprint calculations can give us a window into the ecological processes on which our ways of life depend, and thus provide occasions to discuss natural resource and waste management, particularly resource depletion, renewal, and toxification.  Indeed, one benefit of footprint calculations is that they account for natural limits to resource use and therefore help students to attend to the overconsumption of natural resources, or “overshoot,” and its implications for future generations.
  • Social literacy.  Examining any ecological footprint will inevitably lead to investigations of the development of social systems – political, economic, and cultural – that shape human consumption and production.  This will give students chances to achieve greater social literacy by learning such things as population demographics, consumption trends, economic development models, and policy priorities, just to name a few.
  • Lifestyle choices.  Ecological footprint calculators provide a unique feedback mechanism to students about the impacts of their consumption and the lifestyle associated with it.  These highly personal choices – from diet to energy use – can be emotionally loaded and thus difficult to discuss.  But when done tactfully, discussion of personal consumption can yield profound learning moments and new intellectual inquiry for the future.  Among the most interesting questions is to what extent individual or household consumption can help solve problems such as climate change, something Vanderbilt researchers, Amanda Carrico, Mike Vandenbergh, and Jonathan Gilligan have researched with Paul Stern, Gerald Gardner and Thomas Dietz. Read their paper “Energy and Climate Change: Key Lessons for Implementing the Behavioral Wedge.”
  • Environmental history.  As footprint calculations are conducted over time, we may have more accurate assessments of cumulative impacts and thus have a clearer sense of how human society has shaped the natural world, and vice versa.
  • Inequality.  Footprint calculations compared over individuals, groups, or entire nations can provide a basis for wide-ranging discussions of inequality in resource use and waste, as well as the cultural, political, and economic systems that structure them.
  • Policy analysis.  More precise ecological accounting inevitably leads to discussions of different regimes of resource management, and thus offers opportunities to debate environmental policy at the local, national, or global level.  Further, because ecological footprints can suggest multiple and highly different models of achieving sustainability, they may foster discussion about a wide range of environmental policies.
  • Future directions.  Ecological footprint discussions often lead to broad yet urgent student questions about how to define and construct a sustainable society.  These are among the most difficult questions to answer because they are weighted with many complexities, uncertainties, and moral quandaries.  Yet, such questions can provide openings for fruitful discussions of ways students may engage in new areas of research, policy, and leadership.

Limitations of Footprints

Footprint calculators are not without their limitations, however.  Even so, the limitations of footprint calculators below afford their own teaching moments.  In reference to Carbon Calculators, Mike Vandenbergh, Vanderbilt University Professor of Law, suggests several limitations are important to consider:

  • Non-transparency.  Carbon Calculators involve many data points and complex calculations.  To make them accessible to a wide audience, they often simplify the results and fail to disclose some of the methods or data sources involved.  This can limit the educational potential of the calculators.  Therefore, it is important to understand the methods behind the calculations and make this part of the teaching process.
  • Limited inputs.  Some calculators are better than others.  Some use too few or unreliable sources of data, while others do not.  Therefore it is important to know the sources and methods of footprint calculations and to encourage students to think critically about them.
  • Lack of context.  Carbon footprint calculations can provide useful measures of carbon emissions, but their relevance is always dependent upon the teaching context.  Thus it is important for educators to use them well and to contextualize their use within specific learning goals of the course and broader disciplinary orientations towards questions of sustainability.
  • Skepticism.  Many students may regard footprint calculations skeptically for a variety of reasons: the publicity and persuasiveness of climate change skepticism, the personal threat they may feel to their lifestyle, or the challenge they may feel to their political identity, just to name three.  However, a critical, comprehensive, and not selective skepticism is something to be encouraged in students, and these reactions present teaching moments about the challenges of critical thinking and of the difficult choices posed by global environmental problems.


The Global Footprint Network supports the shift towards a sustainable economy by advancing the Ecological Footprint, a measurement and management tool that makes the reality of global limits central to decision-making.  Ecological footprint projects can be an effective way to get students thinking about how sustainability intersects with their lives.

The latest results from Vanderbilt’s Green House Gas Emissions Survey may be especially useful for Vanderbilt faculty who wish to incorporate campus operations and sustainability into their courses.  Some interesting highlights:

Vanderbilt University’s total carbon footprint for 2009 is approximately 464,240 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2E), a 2.4% decrease since 2005.

Of this total, 39% is electricity purchased from NES, 23% is from coal use at the VU power plant, 19% is from faculty and staff commuting, and 14% is from natural gas use at the VU power plant.  This is represented in the pie chart below:

The Clean Air-Cool Planet on-line Campus Climate Action Toolkit (CCAT) is the basis for carbon calculations used by most universities in their efforts to become more sustainable. This may be of service as one considers addressing campus sustainability issues in courses.

Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center (SERC).  A broad and multifaceted program, SERC is home to various resources and links that may be of use, including the Climate Literacy Network, the Pedagogy in Action website, and Teaching the Earth, among other valuable sites.

“The Ecological Footprint: Accounting for a Small Planet,” a film produced by Bullfrog Films in 2005, features Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and is a good introduction to natural resource accounting.  Directed by Patsy Northcutt for the Global Footprint Network, it is 30 minutes long.

Ecological Footprint Feedback: Motivating or Discouraging?,” an article by Amara Brook in Social Influence (Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 113-28, 2011), discusses the psychological challenges of motivating students with ecological footprints.  While some students with high personal commitments to environmental sustainability were motivated to take action by their own footprint data, others without such commitments were not.  This suggests at the very least that teaching with ecological footprints requires nuance and intentional discussion of their affective aspects.