The following is a guest post from Deborah Shimberg. Deborah lives in northern Vermont, where she started and continues to run Verve, Inc., which makes all-natural Glee chewing gum.


We denizens of the earth know we are living beyond our means. But it’s hard to know by how much, and when we may reach the tipping point. That’s where the numbers come in.

This week, the Skoll Foundation awarded a 3-year grant of $1,015,000 to the Global Footprint Network, which uses and promotes a number tool called the Ecological Footprint. As the only measurement tool that calculates the total amount of resources needed for food, transportation, housing, energy, material consumption, and waste disposal, the Ecological Footprint reduces our suspicions about profligate unsustainability to actual acreage. It uses a variety of sources to add up all the acres needed to support us, and compares them with the amount of acreage available on earth.

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"The Ecological Footprint," says Susan Burns, Managing Director of Global Footprint Network, "is the measurement, the missing piece. It’s like we’ve been overspending, but we’ve never gotten a bank statement."

The Skoll Foundation (Jeff Skoll of eBay and Participant Productions fame) believes in the Global Footprint Network’s ability to influence policy and create change. The award will go toward building organizational capacity, continuing and expanding research, and getting governments all over the world to begin using the footprint — rather than GDP — as an indicator of progress.

Skoll’s recognition that our combined ecological overdraft constitutes a "social issue in need of urgent attention" is crucial. Currently, we use about 30% more of the planet’s renewable capacity than it has available. When the land and marine resources to support the world’s population are divided by the total population, it takes about 2.2 global hectares to supply each person; the earth’s biocapacity is only 1.8. It takes the earth about 1 year and 3 months to renew a year’s worth of our resource use. We’re spending down our natural capital.

Of course, there are big differences across the world. Afghanis average 1/10 global hectares per year; citizens of the United Arab Emirates use almost 12 (Americans are only second worst).

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In just four years, the Ecological Footprint has had an extraordinary impact on institutional decision-making. "It’s not just about the number," says Burns. "We try to create a dialogue in the community. It’s a conversation tool, whether people think it’s great or they’re skeptical." London has recently completed a study of its footprint as part of a campaign to become sustainable by 2050. Tony Blair used One Planet Olympics, a plan for the first sustainable Olympic Games, to help win the British bid for 2012. Countries like Japan, Switzerland, and Wales are using the footprint to make policy and institutional decisions.

We can only hope this data-driven approach continues to spread.

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