Erasing our Footprints with Nurturing Handprints

The world is full of footprints.  To many of us, it’s the only thing we’ve left behind as we’ve meandered across this amazing planet.  But there are other footprints, the kind we use as a form of measurement. 


Since Dr. William Rees and Dr. Mathis Wackernagel first coined the term “ecological footprint” in 1992, countries, organizations, and individuals have been busy measuring the ecological impacts as a result of their habits and lifestyles. 


Now, we have ecological footprints, carbon footprints, and even water footprints.   We are able to track our contribution to environmental degradation, the greenhouse gas emissions we release which heats the atmosphere, and the impacts of our water use. 


Little of what we do that’s damaging is now left unmeasured.  Well, we could still likely do to know more about the impacts of our actions in contributing to biodiversity loss, the release of toxic chemicals, and socially undermining other people from meeting their needs.  I guess we still could do with three more footprint measurements.  By achieving this, we would more or less be able to measure all the bad things one well-meaning person is doing people and the planet over the course of a lifetime.


If time permits, I am brave enough and have enough support from peers; I hope to be a part of developing one or more of these missing footprints.  Most especially, the social footprint, a measure of your actions and consumption choices as it affects other people on the planet, would be a valuable venture.  Albeit hotly contested. 


Recently, the Center for Sustainable Innovation announced the development of a social footprint calculator.


Attempting to quantify social degradation will never make everyone happy, but giving people a rough idea of their social impacts on the world is better than giving them no idea at all.


Could you imagine if we all knew, with reasonable certainty, how much bad we are doing in the world, would we then be able to make the change needed?


There are many arguments against this, but let’s be blue sky thinking people for a bit.  Yes, many of our impacts are not the fault of our own but due to the environment we live in (i.e. living in a community with no public transportation).  We can all be vegans, growing our own food and clothing, and only taking holidays by bicycle.  Even with this ‘off the grid’ lifestyle, we can still have a negative ecological and possibly even social, impacts.


What exactly is a footprint?

The ecological footprint represents the area of biologically productive land and water a population (or individual, city, etc.) requires to provide the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste, using prevailing technology.  For North Americans, this amount on average equals nearly ten global hectares.  For Europeans, the amount is roughly five global hectares.


In 2003, the globally available biocapacity was 1.8 global hectares per person.  And this doesn’t take into account the needs of other wild species to share the same land.  What this means is if we were all North Americans, we would need five planet Earths to survive in the long run without changing our habits.  For Europeans, still another 2.5 planets are required. 


Personal Footprint calculations are still an emerging science, and the calculator you choose will dictate how big of a footprint you are given.  In the Carbon Footprinting world, there are now over 2000 carbon footprint calculators available online, and all of them are definitely not created equally.


Last night I visited three ecological footprint calculators to see how I would fair: Best Foot Forward, WWF’s Footprint Calculator, and the Global Footprint Network, which is led by Mathis Wacknernagel.  My results between the three varied significantly; Best Foot Forward gave me the ‘best’ footprint at a respectable 1.7 planets (2.8 G Ha) and just 5.4 tonnes of Carbon emissions.  WWF calculated a more severe 2.61 planets and 14.57 tonnes of Carbon emissions (41% due to my travel habits). 


Under the Global Footprint Network’s newly updated version, I came in at 3.3 planets and nearly 20 tonnes of Carbon emissions, again mainly because of my use of flying over the past year.  Ah the brutal truth.


Maybe 3.3 planets in this day and age is not terrible when compared to the North American average of 5, but it’s not exactly inspiring for someone that works in the sustainability industry, has already become a vegetarian, swapped his car for a bicycle, composts his organic waste, transitioned the investment portfolio to low carbon and SRI products, habitually recycles, buys local organic foods and second hand goods almost exclusively. 


I really have two options that can get me to that desired level of one planet and a per person allocation of only two tonnes of carbon per year (or at least slightly above this level to account for the delay in our inefficient national infrastructure coming in line with our own efforts):


  • I can completely sacrifice all the travel and cheese from my diet, which would bring me close, but likely leave me in a state of malaise and hopeless despair.


  • I can offset my excess, and pay a fair price for a real reduction in environmental damages and greenhouse gas emissions from somewhere else on the planet. 


Yes, again many frugal folks are keen to argue the offset debate and I welcome them to take a read of my other blog posting (Offsetting Works).  Very simply, if you can understand the value in fair-trade coffee, you can understand the value in offsetting.  Both involve the consumer choosing to pay an extra amount which ensures that the damaging business as usual approach is mitigated (a.k.a. paying for a negative externality currently outside the financial system).


Is there any other way? It doesn’t seem right, to conserve as much as possible and still have to pay for the left over wrong doing.  I’m a good person, we’re all good people at heart, and many of us are working our butts off to do positive things in our society.  What’s wrong with this picture?


Well, there actually is something missing, something these footprints aren’t able to consider.  It’s our Handprint. 


I’m not sure who first coined the term ‘Handprint’ in response to the Footprint mania developing from the 90s.  Alex Steffan wrote about in mid 2000, and others have spoken about it since (see here, here, and here).  Put simply, the Handprint is the Ying to the Footprint’s Yang.  It is conceptualised as all the good one individual, organization, city, or country can do. 


Where a Footprint measures all the damage we are doing to the planet, a Handprint measures all our nurturing and giving to society and the planet.  As the argument goes, if you are doing a lot social and ecological good, your handprint should be larger you’re your footprint. 


Imagine again, as blue sky thinkers, that we could get everyone to have a larger Handprint than Footprint.  We would create a completely restorative society, promoting peace, preserving health, happiness, well-fair, and rebuilding eco-systems on the verge of collapse. 


A net-benefit society isn’t as far away as we may think. 


We’ve shown that we can do a great job of measuring the bad things happening around us, it’s time we started learning how to measure the good things. 


We live in a world where many people will not do something ‘just because’.  People need to understand the why behind things in order to be part of the solution.  By enhancing the Footprint measurements with Social Footprinting, etc., and adding in a Handprint measure, we can finally create a balanced measurement from which global citizens can work against. 


What gaps remain in us becoming net-positive influencers on people and the planet; for the time-being, hopefully offsets will be a strong enough opportunity to make a difference financially where personal efforts falls short..


Sound like a challenge? It is.  Why not help make this a success.  If you would like to help develop a social footprint and/or a handprint calculator, please email me Dermco[at]




About derm

I have a job in Scotland, working on business and climate change. With a passion for and graduate schooling in whole-systems sustainability from Sweden, I try to keep my hand on the pulse of the sustainability world through various side-projects with friends and peers. I've written reports on water, on true costing of food and natural resources, responsible investing, and on global organizational networks. I love hill running, probably because I left all the powder skiing back in British Columbia. I also love seeing things grow and looking at something familiar with new eyes. I think I could live happily for a year on pizza and nachos, although I'd prefer to not find out. I believe wild animals have a message for us, and it may be something to do with the fact that they've been getting a bum deal on this planet lately. When I was little I believed that there was someone special out there for each and everyone of us. I still believe that. I know world is a complex place, and feel that open and honest communication is probably one of the few sure ways to lead us to success.
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One Response to Erasing our Footprints with Nurturing Handprints

  1. Pingback: Sustainability Research Group » Blog Archive » Dermot Hikisch Bio

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