Title: Footprints to nowhere
Citation: ECOLOGICAL INDICATORS vol. 46 p. 610-621
Publication Year: 2014
JRC N°: JRC81963
ISSN: 1470-160X
URI: http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC81963
DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2014.01.030
Type: Articles in periodicals and books
Abstract: Crisp numbers make it to the headlines. However, it is unlikely that a single crisp number can capture a complex issue, such as the analysis of the sustainability of human progress both at the local and the global scale. This paper tackles this standard epistemological predicament in relation to a media-friendly model of man's impact on Nature: the Ecological Footprint (EF). The claim made by the proponents of this analytical tool is that EF makes it possible to check "how much is taken" by the economic process versus "how much could be taken" according to ecological processes. In this paper we argue that the ecological footprint assessment - purportedly useful as an argument against the idea of perpetual growth - is in fact a pseudo scientific construct ultimately damaging both the cause it intends to support and the discipline it purports to be based on. Our critical appraisal is based on the lack of correspondence between the semantics - the claim about what the EF accounting does - and the syntax - the EF protocol of accounting that should deliver the purported output. We critically examine the various assumptions used in the approach, showing that the EF is a flawed and rhetorical instrument. The laboriousness of EF computation protocols starkly contrasts with its ultimate fragility: the most questionable of all the proposed estimates -the estimate of carbon footprint - is what determines the value of the planet's deficit of virtual land. Our conclusion is that the EF is a clear case of improper use of mathematical modeling and environmental accounting which does not serve the current discussion on sustainability and modeling.
JRC Directorate:Joint Research Centre Corporate Activities

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