The Ecological Cost of Human Development: A Scientific Framework for Promoting Sustainable Development Policies

The Ecological Cost of Human Development: A Scientific Framework for Promoting Sustainable Development Policies

Seminar Abstract 

Sustainable human development will occur when all humans can have fulfilling lives without degrading the planet. This is the ultimate goal — and challenge — for humanity. But unless we develop a science-based method to measure sustainable development outcomes, this vision can never be fully realized. A metric that can be applied at the macro level for humanity and nations, to the micro level for projects and communities, will enable all to direct investments toward actions that are truly impactful, and away from those that are not. In short, a metric that will encourage nations and communities to take their fate into their own hands.


Social entrepreneur initiatives could be prime candidates for showcasing this possibility. It would both benefit social entrepreneur organizations by providing a framework for effectively communicating impact across various audiences; and it would strengthen the communities they work within by giving them the tools they need to make informed decisions that will lead to better outcomes.


In this presentation, Mathis Wackernagel proposes such a metric – one that is a simple, science-based tracking system of key outcomes, combining the Human Development Index of UNDP and Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint accounting. This approach is not driven by moral obligation, but rather, by a need to fill a crucial gap in sustainable development efforts. By measuring outcomes at the local level, this metric will illuminate risks that affect the community, not just threats to humanity as a whole. Since this approach neither contains conditionality nor depends on international agreements, it encourages and enables immediate local action. The approach recognizes that human development cannot exist without access to ecological assets, and shows options that make both the communities and the world more resilient.

A recording of this seminar is available at:

Seminar Speaker(s) 

Mathis WackernagelPh.D.
President, Global Footprint Network


Mathis is co-creator of the Ecological Footprint and President of Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think-tank. Global Footprint Network focuses on bringing about a sustainable human economy in which all can live well within the means of one planet. It proposes the Ecological Footprint, which measures how much nature we use and how much nature we have, as a tool for bringing ecological limits to the center of decision-making everywhere.


Mathis has worked on sustainability on six continents and lectured at more than a hundred universities. He previously served as the director of the Sustainability Program at Redefining Progress in Oakland, California, and ran the Centro de Estudios para la Sustentabilidad at Anáhuac University in Xalapa, Mexico. Mathis has authored or contributed to over 50 peer-reviewed papers, numerous articles and reports and various books on sustainability that focus on the question of embracing limits and developing metrics for sustainability, including Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth; Sharing Nature’s Interest;  Der Ecological Footprint, and WWF International’s Living Planet Report.


After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, he completed his Ph.D. in community and regional planning at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. There, as his doctoral dissertation with Professor William Rees, he created the Ecological Footprint concept. Since 2011, he is also the Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Visiting Professor at Cornell University.


Mathis’ awards include the 2013 Prix Nature Swisscanto, the 2012 Blue Planet Prize, sponsored by Asahi Foundation, the main 2012 Binding Prize for Environmental Conservation, the 2012 Kenneth E. Boulding Memorial Award of the International Society for Ecological Economics, the 2011 Zayed International Prize for the Environment (jointly awarded with UNEP), an honorary doctorate from the University of Berne in 2007, a 2007 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a 2006 WWF Award for Conservation Merit and the 2005 Herman Daly Award of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics. He was also selected as number 19 of the en(rich) list identifying the 100 top inspirational individuals whose contributions enrich paths to sustainable futures ( John Elkington identified Mathis in 2012 among the “Zeronaut 50” Roll of Honor, i.e., leading pioneers who are driving the world’s most significant problems to zero.


Sep 26, 2013 -
12:00pm to 1:00pm



Presentation Documents, Slides, and Recordings