Knowledge for better food systems

Measuring sustainability

Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science Ecological Economics, Volume 67, Issue 4, pp. 519-682 (1 November 2008), by Nathan Fiala.
Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science Ecological Economics, Volume 67, Issue 4, pp. 519-682 (1 November 2008), by Nathan Fiala. The ecological footprint is a measure of the resources necessary to produce the goods that an individual or population consumes. It is also used as a measure of sustainability, though evidence suggests that it falls short. The assumptions behind footprint calculations have been extensively criticized; this paper presents further evidence that it fails to satisfy simple economic principles because the basic assumptions are contradicted by both theory and historical data. Specifically, the paper argues that the footprint arbitrarily assumes both zero greenhouse gas emissions, which may not be ex ante optimal, and national boundaries, which makes extrapolating from the average ecological footprint problematic. The footprint also cannot take into account intensive production, and so comparisons to biocapacity are erroneous. Using only the assumptions of the footprint, then, one could argue that the Earth can sustain greatly increased production, though there are important limitations that the footprint cannot address, such as land degradation. Finally, the lack of correlation between land degradation and the ecological footprint obscures the effects of a larger sustainability problem. Better measures of sustainability would address these issues directly.
 

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