The Ecological Footprint Intensity of National Economies


  • Richard York,

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      Assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon

  • Eugene A. Rosa,

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      Distinguished professor of natural resources and environmental policy in the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service and professor of sociology at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington

  • Thomas Dietz

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      Professor of sociology and crop and soil sciences and director of the environmental science and policy program, Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan

Department of Sociology Washington State University Pullman, WA 99164 USA rosa@wsu.eduhttp:cooley.libarts.wsu.edurosa


At least three perspectives—industrial ecology (IE), ecological modernization theory (EMT), and the “environmental Kuznets curve” (EKC)—emphasize the potential for sustainability via refinements in production systems that dramatically reduce the environmental impacts of economic development. Can improvements in efficiency counterbalance environmental impacts stemming from the scale of production? To address this question we analyze cross-national variation in the ecological footprint (EF) per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). The EF is a widely recognized indicator of human pressure on the environment. The EF of a nation is the amount of land area that would be required to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb the wastes it generates. The most striking finding of our analyses is that there is limited variation across nations in EF per unit of GDP. This indicates limited plasticity in the levels of EF intensity or eco-efficiency among nations, particularly among affluent nations. EF intensity is lowest (ecoefficiency is highest) in affluent nations, but the level of efficiency in these nations does not appear to be of sufficient magnitude to compensate for their large productive capacities. These results suggest that modernization and economic development will be insufficient, in themselves, to bring about the ecological sustainability of societies.