The Ecological Footprint Dilemma

By Bruno Borsari, Winona State University, Biology
This case is available from The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University of Buffalo, NY.
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This case was written for an introductory biology class (non-majors) with 180 students and access to a student response system ("clickers"). This case can be completed within a 50-minute class period. Students in my class work in permanent groups, but this case can be used with or without groups as the instructor desires. The case is suitable for courses in ecology, environmental science, conservation biology, environmental studies and general biology. This case is designed to be taught at the end of an ecology unit of the curriculum. Students should be familiar with population ecology concepts such as human population ecology, growth and competition.

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Learning Goals

The learning objectives of this activity are as follows:
- Learn the concept of 'ecological footprint'.
- Understand the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources.
- Measure each individual's footprint.
- Propose methods to develop a sustainable community after an analysis of the footprints generated by the class.
This case aims at resolving misconceptions such as:
- There is no reason to be concerned about an imminent global crisis.
- Technology will find the tools to enable the planet to continue filling human needs.
Prerequisite concepts students should already know:
- Knowing basic concepts of population ecology (richness, distribution, carrying capacity, competition, symbiosis) will be beneficial but not necessary.

Context for Use

See above.
The Ecological Footprint Dilemma case is adaptable (in my opinion) to any class and engaging/challenging to all students.

Description and Teaching Materials

Is it better to have a new parking lot on campus or use that space to develop a community garden? This is the issue presented in this "clicker case," which pulls students into the decision-making process. Students learn about concepts related to sustainability and the challenges of developing more sustainable life styles. They also calculate their ecological footprint. The case combines the use of personal response systems (clickers) with case teaching methods and formats. It is presented in class using a series of PowerPoint slides (~800KB) punctuated by questions that students respond to before moving on to the next slide. Written for a non-majors introductory biology class, the case also is suitable for use in courses in ecology, environmental science, conservation biology, environmental studies, and general biology.

Case and teaching notes can be downloaded from the Case Library for Teaching Science at the University of Buffalo, NY:

Supporting Material:

The case story itself is a separate handout, which should be given to students at the beginning of class.
Human "hunger" for non renewable oil is exacerbating the stability of ecosystems and resources (e.g.: water, air, soil, ecological services). The connections to geoscience are abundant and challenging.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Assessment, pre-post test questions to be answered with clickers.

AQ#1. Non-renewable resource IS TO renewable resource AS;
a. living is to non-living
b. limited supply is to sustainable supply
c. tree is to coal
d. wind energy is to fossil fuel energy
e. conservation is to overexploitation
Rationale: this question has been designed to verify students' ability to evaluate a set of analogical concepts that are dealing with the understanding of renewable and non-renewable resources. Correct answer is B.

AQ#2. Which of the following represents an idea associated with sustainability?
a. The capacity of the environment to absorb toxins is unlimited.
b. The human population continues to grow.
c. We are using fossil fuels as if they were present in unlimited supply.
d. The Earth's resources are not present in infinite supply
e. None of the above
Rationale: this is a factual question aiming at substantiating the generalized misconception that resources are limitless, or that it is impossible for the human population to exhaust the planet resource base. Correct answer is D.

AQ#3. The current global ecological footprint of each person is about 2.3 hectares. The Earth presently has 11.4 billion hectares of productive land. If we divide this usable area by the global human population of approximately 6.5 billion, this means:
a. we have an ecological deficit – we have exceeded our allotted footprint of 1.8 hectares per person
b. we have an ecological surplus – we have undershot our allotted footprint of 2.5 hectares per person
c. we have an ecological deficit – we have not reached our allotted footprint of 2.5 hectares per person
d. we have an ecological surplus – we have surpassed our allotted footprint of 1.8 hectares per person
e. we are in a sustainable condition – we are at our allotted footprint of 2.3 hectares per person
Rationale: this question aims at verifying the analytical skills of students as well as their synthesis skills, after calculating individual, group and class ecological footprint by working the case. Correct answer is A.

AQ#4. Examples of non-sustainable human activities or behaviors include:
a. attempts to limit human population growth.
b. using technology to improve car mileage
c. use of nonrenewable resources as if they were present in unlimited quantities.
d. conservation practices
e. recycling.
Rationale: the purpose of this question is to reiterate that concept that we live in a finite world and that many important resources are non-renewable. Therefore, by clarifying
this important concept, education may become the leading vehicle to the development of a more sustainable society. Correct answer is C.

AQ#5. What is the environmental effect of the process of "consumption"?
a. consumption can outstrip the natural resources available and lead to an overexploitation of the environment
b. extravagant consumption can create an environment of raising one's status among peers
c. the process of consumption is an economic act, providing the "demand" necessary for the "supply" of the environment
d. consumption can generate economic growth that relies significantly on the importation of natural resources, which benefits the environments of less-developed countries
e. consumption is strictly a social act and has no environmental significance
Rationale: This is an 'evaluation' question aiming at assessing what was learned during the case when the concept of affluence was presented. The correct answer is A.

References and Resources

Borsari, B. 2004. Education toward sustainability and the vision beyond a curriculum
emphasis. Journal of Scholarly Endeavor, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Vol. 4, p. 6. (Abstract).

Brown, L. 2008. Plan B 3.0. Mobilizing to save Civilization. W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Bruntland, G. (Ed.). 1987. Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.

Creighton-Hammond, S. 1999. Greening the Ivory Tower. Improving the environmental track record of universities, colleges, and other institutions. MIT Press.

Doherty, S., A. Shannon and J. Harman. 2004. Toward a better understanding of our ecological footprint: development of sustainable progress indicators for Slippery Rock University, in: Onwueme, I. and G. Fisher (Eds.), Proceedings of the Richard Alsina Fulton Conference on Sustainability and the Environment, Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA, March 26-27, pp. 167-182.

Odum, H.T. 1996. Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Decision Making. John
Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Onwueme, I. and B. Borsari. 2007. The sustainability asymptogram: a new philosophical framework for policy, outreach and education in sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. Vol. 8 (1): 44-52.

Sterling, S. 2001. Sustainable Education. Re-Visioning Learning and Change, Green Books Ltd., Devon, U.K.

Wackernagel, M. and W. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact
on the Earth. New Society Publishers, British Columbia, Canada.

Wackernagel, M, N. Schulz, D. Deumling, A. Callejas Linares, M. Jenkins, V. Kapos, C.
Monfreda, J. Loh, N. Myers, R. Norgaard, and J. Randers. 2002. Tracking the ecological
Overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The Ecological Footprint. Accounting for a Small Planet. 2004. A film by Northcutt Productions featuring Mathis Wackernagel, PhD. Bullfog Films, Oley, PA.

The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. Available at:

Author Notes

This material is based upon work supported by the NSF under Grant No. DUE-0618570. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Additionally, the author would like to thank Drs. Clyde F. Herreid (University of Buffalo), Mary Lundeberg (Michigan State University) and Eric Ribbens (Western Illinois University) for their guidance and critical evaluation of the case. The comments of an anonymous reviewer were also valuable to improve the quality of this case.