design equality sustainability

Exploring national biocapacity

The idea of biocapacity is one of the key concepts behind this blog and one of the earliest things I researched in any detail. In a nutshell, biocapacity is the total of all renewable resources and services provided within a given area. Countries and regions have a biocapacity of their own, and so does the earth in total.

It is possible to overshoot capacity for a short time, in the same way that I can work a 70 hour week when I’ve got a deadline, but would crash if I had to do it full time. Global biocapacity was breached around 1987, and every year since more resources have been used than can be replaced and more wastes have been emitted than can be absorbed.

Putting economic and ecological realities together gives you the reason for the title of this blog. If it takes more than the planet’s total biocapacity to deliver a consumer lifestyle to just one in seven of us human beings, then ending poverty is already incompatible with sustainability, and the rich world needs to downsize to make room.

hosted a competition recently to visualise the concept of biocapacity and national surpluses or deficits. Jacob Houtman’s winning entry is this rather nifty . Hover over a country, and you’ll see it’s capacity, and to what extent its population is in either environmental credit or deficit.

As you might expect, rich or populous countries tend to be into their overdrafts – the red ones below. That means they need a poorer or larger country somewhere with a surplus they can use – the green ones. Britain only gets away with such an affluent lifestyle on a small island because other countries aren’t using all their resources and services. That’s fine, if we’re paying for it. If we’re not, by emitting CO2 into the atmosphere for free for example, that’s an ecological debt that we’re not taking responsibility for.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to write a long post. Click on the image below to explore the map. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time.


  1. While it’s a nifty tool, as an Aussie, I immediately noticed a problem. It doesn’t distinguish between biomes. All land is treated equally, so that rich grassland with deep soil, good rainfall and high biodiversity is counted as equal to a desert or icecap. One effect of this is to mask the unsustainability of a country like Australia, since we are allowed to count our vast deserts in the hectares we are allocated and it appears as thought we have very significant reserves, even while having amongst the highest per capita footprints in the world.

    1. True, Australia gets off lightly there, and Canada is a better example of geographic wealth, with its vast forests. It also can’t factor in overall wider ecological impact through the economy. Australia’s coal exports give it an impact well beyond its own boundaries.

  2. Yep, and such matters really matter in Australia, where large parts of the population truly don’t see us as a problem. There is currently more than AUD10 million being spent on an ad campaign against the minority government’s proposed scheme to put a price on carbon and the campaign’s primary goal is to build on people’s sense of Australia being a bit player on the world stage (a common assumption amongst Australians) to say that such a scheme would do no good because we “only” contribute 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. It is a very effective (though highly deceptive) campaign. Depressing.

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