Footprints towards sustainability 

Ecological Footprint speaker puts sustainability into perspective

Before Whistler can move towards ecological, social and environmental sustainability – in other words, zero net impact on the planet and its resources – we need to know what our actual net impact is, and then figure out how we can reduce it to a sustainable level.

According to Dr. Mathias Wackernagel, the co-founder of the "Ecological Footprint" concept, determining the size of an ecological footprint is a lot easier than making the necessary changes to reduce it to a sustainable level.

"How well can we live on a small footprint?," Dr. Wackernagel asked the 200 people who came out to see his presentation at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Sunday evening.

"Our next big challenge is to see if we can live on this planet without destroying it, can live within the budget of nature?"

Dr. Wackernagel was the third presenter in the Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation speaker series, which is being held as part of Whistler’s own sustainability initiative, Whistler. It’s Our Nature.

An ecological footprint measures our use of nature, or the biologically productive area required to produce the resources and absorb the waste of a given population.

By dividing the total surface area of biologically productive nature on the planet by the earth’s population, Dr. Wackernagel determined that there is about two hectares (five acres) of land for every person. As the population increases, and as consumption of resources increases, that area will continue to grow smaller.

By measuring our consumption of these resources, it can further be determined that the average footprint of an American is about 13 hectares. For a Canadian it’s about 10 hectares, for a European it’s about five hectares, and for a Mexican it’s about 2.3 hectares. In Canada, we have to reduce our per capita consumption and waste by five times in order to be sustainable.

Whistler will be measuring its own footprint to determine how far we have to go to become the first sustainable town on the planet.

Dr. Wackernagel and the Redefining Progress organization, are attracting world-wide attention as countries and corporations realize that growth and development can’t go on indefinitely – some countries have already hit the wall, and the decline is being felt sharply.

Nature does regenerate itself to an extent, providing it’s used as a sustainable level. Back in the 1970s, Dr. Wackernagel estimates that it would only take three-quarters of a year to regenerate what we used in a year. The current rate of consumption is almost double, or about 1.35 – it now takes the earth 1.35 years to regenerate what we use in a year, which is why all life sustaining ecological systems are currently in decline.

Footprint measurements can be done on a global, national, municipal and even personal scale.

"For a municipality, we have to know how big it is, how it is used," he says. "Let’s say we have a ski resort, bidding for a huge sports competition. You calculate the footprint of the event, but then what do you do? Whatever it takes.

"We (Redefining Progress) were approached by a large company that builds huge sewage treatment plans. They wanted an ecological design with a smaller ecological footprint. Why? Because it’s a competitive market, and these are billion dollar contracts at stake. It’s a competitive advantage to be able to hold up a small footprint during the bid.

"Lets say this sporting event was taking place in two areas far removed from each other, and to move from place to place will require a bus every 15 seconds. It’s an interesting problem, but it can be solved if we use software instead of hardware. Instead of producing buses for everyone, some people can watch it on television and on their computers. There are a lot of possibilities today."

In closing, Dr. Wackernagel said he would like to see Whistler become an example for the world.

"The name ‘Whistler’ comes from the marmot’s whistle – they use it as an alarm system. We can warn others, and be an example. We need a municipality like Whistler to say ‘we can do much better, and we have a much better life.’"

The next Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation speaker is Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry. She will be in Whistler in February on a date and at a location to be announced.

Dr. Karl Henrik Robert, the creation of the Natural Step framework for sustainability, on which Whistler’s own sustainability initiative is based, will be in Whistler in March.

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