top of page
2024-02-11 17.38_edited.jpg


Impact of my Work

It does not matter what you do ... but what you do does

In the end, it is about outcome. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So what can I show for?

I have contributed to a new vocabulary and a way to make human dependence on the biosphere easier to understand. Google currently finds 7 million webpages mentioning the "Ecological Footprint". One component of this footprint, the "carbon footprint" is even more popular. This is ironic, since initially we were laughed at for including carbon in the footprint accounts. But we insisted that carbon emissions are a competing use of the biosphere. Now, Google finds over 100 million webpages referencing the term.

Does this proliferation of the concept make a difference? I do not know. Depression and disgust made me give up adding to and curating my collection of plastic water bottles depicting footprints on their label to praise those bottles' apparent virtues. I did not even start cataloguing inflight magazines discussing carbon footprints and their climate concerns.

Still, there are some achievements I am proud of. One is laying the foundation of the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, starting in 1997 with a report to RIO+5. I am also pleased with having been able to improve them over time: first in Mexico with my little team at Anáhuac University in Xalapa, Veracruz, then with many researchers at Global Footprint Network, and since 2019, with an organization dedicated to its governance (FoDaFo), in partnership with York University who are now producing the accounts. These accounts, using up to 15'000 data points from UN statistics per country and year provide a robust result - it could be called the GDP of nature. We tested those accounts with the ministerial research institutions of over 10 countries, and they confirmed the results (but did not like the implications).


The results of the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts have led to uncountable reports and sustainability speeches prominently quoting them. The statistics include how many planets we use, how many planets we would use if all lived like the Dutch, when we have used up all the regenerative resources for the year, which countries have the largest biocapacity reserves, etc.

Also, we got some heavy hitters interested: Global Footprint Network, after testing the method with their institutions, various national governments like Ecuador or Slovenia set themselves Ecological Footprint targets or included them in their development plans. Ecuador was one of them. In Switzerland, there even was a nation-wide referendum, whether it should strive to establish a one-Earth economy by 2050 rather than maintain its current three-Earth economy. 36% of the voters preferred reaching a one-Earth economy.


Over the years, although constantly improved, the accounts have produced consistent results, have persisted waves of (mostly misinformed) criticism, and the results are quoted widely and visibly, including by heads of state or international dignitaries.

With all this and additional campaigns, I have contributed to a sharper understanding of humanity's ecological challenges among large segments of the population. I have helped Global Footprint Network and others to make the information available in easy, understandable ways. For instance, 43% of the Germans know about Earth Overshoot Day – with comparatively little effort and budget, and barely any direct presence of Global Footprint Network in Germany. I am particularly touched by people who I have met who, only informed through second-hand media stories, could perfectly well explain overshoot and its meaning. We distilled the overshoot challenge in ways that are both scientifically rigorous and highly accessible, even to middle school students. We made human dependence on nature measurable.

Pedestrian, but robust science

I also believe that this accounting approach, using regeneration as its underlying currency, as pedestrian science as it is, also is the most robust, comprehensive and meaningful way to compare the size of the human enterprise with the biophysical capacity of the planet to sustain such enterprise. Through such assessments, I helped produce robust underestimates of how big humanity is compared to the planet. This includes the insight that human demand on the planet is at least 70% larger than the amount the biosphere can regenerate. This is like using 1.7 Earths. Ecologists point out that in order to maintain robust biodiversity, maybe just 86% of what we found 100 years ago, would require not to use more than 1/2 the planet's capacity, or 3.4 times less than the current take.

I also helped build various versions of the world’s most popular Ecological Footprint calculator with about 5 million visitors per year; it is still growing in audience. We have received many praises for the level-headed, accessible content of this websites, and others we have created, such as the informative data platform or the power of possibility.

Global Footprint Network has reached regularly 7 billion media impressions per year with Earth Overshoot Day and nearly double that amount throughout the entire year. This included massive uptake in top-tier media, particularly outside of the US.

I have had the privilege to also work with  many national governments and international agencies, to explore the implications of the most significant dynamic affecting humanity in the 21st century – overshoot, by providing insight through quantitative, descriptive metrics that make the problem manageable.

Now all this is still about how others have picked up on the work I have led and contributed to. But what have they done with it? Is overshoot any less because of that? Shortly, I will write more about that.


I will add more examples. But here is just one. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2023. There he said:  "The climate threat is coming to a point of no return.  We are using 1.6 planets, but we have only one planet to use.” By then, it was actually already 1.7.... still I laud the clarity with which he uses the data point, and the implications he recognizes. Check out the segment by clicking on António Guterres's picture below.

Pile of Logs
bottom of page