Humanity’s impact on the environment: Exactly how big is our ecological footprint?

Dalton Endowed Chair of Environmental Science and Studies Marsha Bollinger informed Winthrop students about humanity’s impact on the environment Thursday as a part of Winthrop’s Common Book series “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

Using a global ecological footprint calculator at, Bollinger found the ecological impact of the average Winthrop student, taking food choices, consumer practices, transportation and services into consideration. According to the calculator, 3.8 planet Earths would be needed to provide enough resources if everyone in the world lived in the same conditions, while the world average is 1.5 Earths.

Bollinger said that using the global hectare scale, a measurement of the ecological footprint, the U.S. has a global hectare rating of eight per person compared to Malawi’s rating of 0.8. According to the 2010 Ecological Footprint Atlas from the Global Footprint Network, this means that the U.S. consumes 4.13 gha/pers more than it produces each year. At the same time, Malawi consumes only .03 gha/pers more than it produces.

Despite the vast difference in consumption between these two countries, according to a 2010 study performed by the United Nations Development Programme, the U.S. scored .937 on the Human Development Index (HDI), while Malawi scored .418. The HDI ranges from 0 to 1 and compares life expectancy, education and income. High human development is considered to be above .8, so this means that the standard of living in Malawi is much lower.

“In a perfect world, every person would live in high human development,” Bollinger said.

According to Bollinger, the US and Malawi comparison reflects much of the world. She showed a Sustainable Development graph from 2007, which compared HDO and GHA. The majority of European nations as well as the U.S. and Canada were above the goal for HDI, but left a larger footprint. The majority of African nations fall below the HDI line, but left a smaller footprint. Not one nation on the graph was within the goal set by the Global Footprint Network for HDI and ecological footprint.

In “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” William Kamkwamba wanted electricity in order to produce a water pump for his village, which may be taken for granted by a society as privileged as the U.S. In her closing statements, Bollinger presented a graph showing that Malawi is starting to increase its ecological footprint above biocapacity. She expressed the need to work toward reducing the ecological footprint so that the land may reproduce its resources.

According to Bollinger, each Winthrop student can help reduce humanity’s ecological footprint by eating less animal-based and processed foods, conserving electricity, traveling less on the weekends and, if possible, choosing to rent books or purchase e-books instead of new ones.



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