The concept of the "ecological footprint" was introduced in the early 1990s by a Canadian researcher, William Rees, and popularized by his Swiss colleague, Mathis Wackernagel.43 In an elegant conceptual leap, they looked at all human activity and asked the simple question: How many Planet Earths would it take to support human activity at current levels of consumption, pollution and resource depletion? The answer for 2003 was 1.25 Earths. That created an immediate conceptual problem, because we only have one Earth to work with for the foreseeable future. The ecological footprint of the average American would occupy the resources of about five to ten Earths, the average Canadian about four to eight Earths.44 According to the Global Footprint Network:
Humanity's Ecological Footprint is over 23% larger than what the planet can regenerate. In other words, it now takes more than one year and two months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in a single year. We maintain this overshoot by liquidating the planet's ecological resources.45
Using the calculator supplied by the Global Footprint Network, you can evaluate your own consumption patterns to determine how your lifestyle stacks up against sustainability criteria.
Green buildings are one way to reduce the ecological footprint of human activity, particularly at higher levels of LEED certification. Living buildings that produce all of their own energy onsite, recycle all of their waste products, subsist entirely on natural rainfall and last hundreds of years begin to mimic natural systems.
Another approach to the ecological footprint comes from a system called The Natural Step, originally developed in Sweden in the 1980s and now in use in 11 countries.46 Buildings that use The Natural Step assessment framework go beyond LEED to consider the full range of impacts from product manufacture, transportation, building construction and continuing operations. A modified version of this framework might ask such questions as:
• Can the Earth replace what I take? (Use no products faster than nature can produce them, either by using recycled-content materials or relying on renewable energy and natural rainfall.)
• Am I poisoning the Earth, water or air (Are my activities causing pollution either upstream or downstream of the building activity?)
• Do I respect the biodiversity of flora and fauna (Does this project result, directly or indirectly, in ecosystem degradation?)
• Are the choices I make fair and equitable? (Do the benefits of green buildings accrue to all occupants?)47
These standards are demanding and not likely to be met by most of today's green buildings, but they point us toward the development of restorative buildings and offer a clear direction for future green building design.
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