How Big is My Footprint?

Dr. Alison O’Malley, Department of Psychology, Butler University

Engaging in the issues of climate change is often challenging for students because of perceived long time horizons and because, for many students, the impacts seemingly occur in faraway places. In this activity, students view the issue of climate change and its environmental impacts through their personal frame of reference, using an ecological footprint exercise. Students simultaneously advance their understanding of scientific concepts related to flows of energy and matter, and of the social, environmental, and economic issues of climate change.

Once students measure their personal ecological footprint, they can move from a micro level of analysis to a more macro perspective wherein they examine the collective impact of anthropogenic activity on national and global levels. Ultimately, the ecological footprint activity brings visibility to some environmental consequences of their lifestyles that are otherwise invisible, allowing students to see their behavior—and willingness or resistance to changing it—in a new light.

Courses Into Which This Activity Could Fit

  • Environmental science and environmental studies
  • Science, technology, and society
  • Conservation psychology
  • Introduction to psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Microeconomics
  • Sociology
  • STEM courses of many types


The Activity

This activity relies upon guided discovery, asking students to select relevant information, organize it into a coherent structure, and integrate it with other organized knowledge.

Before coming to class, students complete an ecological footprint quiz ( wherein they answer questions centered on food, housing, and transportation. The quiz permits respondents to choose between two response formats: basic or detailed information; I encourage students to provide detailed information. Students bring their results to class (see sample results below). Prior to class, students also read Gardner and Stern’s (2008) paper (, an accessible introduction to the distinction between curtailment (i.e., scaling back current behavior; for example, driving less) and efficiency (i.e., implementing more efficient technology; for example, driving a zero emission vehicle).

I recommend collecting and compiling (e.g., into an Excel spreadsheet) students’ footprint scores in advance of the class meeting devoted to the footprint exercise. As depicted above, scores are presented in terms of the number of planet Earths it takes to meet an individual’s resource demands and absorb associated wastes on an annual basis. Remind students to bring laptops or tablets to class on this particular day so they can work with a data file containing anonymized footprint scores.

Working in small groups, students generate responses to the following prompts regarding the footprint exercise itself. These questions encourage students to grapple with the global-local interface as they move from an individual level of analysis to much larger-scale social processes.

  • How large is your footprint compared to others in the class? First, analyze classroom-level data. What does the distribution look like? Assuming students have computer access and some familiarity with Excel, they can work with an Excel spreadsheet containing student-level data and aggregate it to the class level by running descriptive statistics. It is a bit complex to create a histogram in Excel, but students can easily create the classroom distribution with this online tool: Next, compare the class’s average footprint to the national averages (see the “footprint for nations” area under “footprint basics” in the quiz).
  • How much control do you have over the size of your ecological footprint Perceived behavioral control is an important predictor of behavioral intentions and actual behavior. The more control people perceive that they have over a given behavior, the more likely they are to engage in it.
  • What are the implications of reducing footprint size for a person’s quality of life? Is pro-environmental behavior likely to compromise happiness?
  • Are any variables missing from the ecological footprint assessment? This gets at whether students perceive the ecological footprint exercise as a legitimate tool. If they perceive it as incomplete or untrustworthy, they are more likely to reject or deny their results.

Then, students use their experience of calculating their footprints to consider how this activity affected their perceptions and predictions of their current and future behavior.

  • What is the connection between a person’s knowledge of her ecological footprint and her pro-environmental behavior? (Encourage students to take into account the figure on page 122 of Brooks (2011) showing how environmental contingency of self-worth moderates the relationship between ecological footprint feedback and pro-environmental behavior.)
  • Which pro-environmental behaviors are the most important to target to address climate change? Using Gardner and Stern (2008) to shape the conversation, construct an ordered list of specific pro-environmental behaviors such that the most important behaviors (those that are the biggest offenders in ecological-footprint terms) receive top priority.The intention is that students select a behavior from this list to target during their subsequent self-change project.

Optional: After the class period, students may submit a proposal for a self-change project wherein students commit to monitoring a specific pro-environmental behavior. The context for self-change is thus grounded in the ecological footprint exercise. Full assignment guidelines are included in the supplemental materials.

Opportunities for service-learning

In courses with a service-learning component, students can guide community members through the footprint quiz and can create learning aids to be distributed once community members receive their footprint results. For instance, my students worked with a local church’s “Green Team” to survey members of the congregation and devise strategies for helping the congregation set energy-reduction targets and monitor progress toward its goals.

Scientific Concepts Addressed and Related Civic Issues

This activity increases students’ understanding of the scientific concepts of an ecological footprint (the demands placed by humanity on nature) and the biocapacity (biologically productive land areas) of the Earth, connecting them to the civic issues of the negative impacts of anthropogenic climate change on human mental and physical health. Students’ eventual realization that humans are living beyond the limits of the biosphere will prompt them to contemplate the role of human behavior in ensuring a sustainable future.

Instructors can launch this discussion by addressing humans’ motivation to change. Is ecological footprint feedback a sufficient motivator to change behavior? Why or why not? This activity examines connections between pro-environmental behavior related to a major civic issue and the concept of self-worth. Students consider the well-studied notion of “contingencies of self-worth,” domains of life in which people believe they must succeed in order to be worthy (see Brooks, 2011). Researchers have found that after individuals receive negative feedback about their ecological footprints, those with relatively higher scores on a scale showing environmental contingencies of self-worth are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior. The opposite effect emerges for those with lower scores: people who do not base their self-worth on environmentalism are less likely to behave in a pro-environmental fashion after receiving negative ecological footprint feedback.

Additional Considerations


  1. The core of the Pearl can be completed in a 50- or 75-minute class period.
  2. Students must do some out-of-class work on the front end prior to the in-class discussion (approximately 15 minutes completing the quiz and interpreting one’s results).

Prior knowledge required

Students must have some knowledge of their consumption patterns, for example, the fuel mileage of their vehicle, and the square footage of their living space. They need no prior knowledge of the scientific concepts or social/civic issues addressed.

Materials needed

  • Internet access (see
  • Two background readings:
    • Brooks, A. 2011. Ecological footprint feedback: Motivating or discouraging? Social Influence, 6(2), 113-128.
    • Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. 2008. The short list: The most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment 50, 13-24.

Context and Concepts for Instructors

  • Climate change is one outcome of humanity’s overuse of the Earth’s resources, and the ecological footprint exercise enables students to study how humanity relates to the ecosphere by quantifying the impact of extracting and processing the materials that they use, either directly or indirectly. The ecological footprint analysis takes into account the land area required to generate the resources that humans consume and assimilate the waste associated with consumption; therefore, ecological overshoot (the use of an ecosystem beyond its maximum sustainable yield) is an inevitable outcome. Collectively, the footprints of the people in a college classroom in the United States will exceed the biocapacity of the Earth many times over.
  • Students will likely inquire about your (the instructor’s) ecological footprint. I disclose mine (acknowledging that it varies depending upon how much time I spend in the sky!), but realize that not all instructors may be comfortable sharing this information.
  • Students often report dismay over the size of their footprints, and they underestimate the extent to which their footprint results will generate an emotional response. Instructors are urged to demonstrate sensitivity and responsiveness to students’ varying emotional reactions to the footprint feedback. This explicit focus on emotion paves the way for the incorporation of Amara Brooks’ work linking ecological footprint feedback to pro-environmental behavior (see additional resources, below).
  • After initially receiving their ecological footprint results, some students begin trying to game the system by retaking the quiz and entering the lowest possible response to each of the questions. Be prepared to discuss why it’s impossible to go below a certain outcome (i.e., a certain number of Earths) because individual-level footprint results are extrapolated from national footprint accounts. That is, an individual’s footprint takes into account both personal behaviors and the infrastructure of the nation in which one resides. For more information, please see
  • Why this footprint quiz rather than another? The ecological footprint exercise is a more comprehensive measure of resource consumption than a carbon footprint quiz (e.g., Whereas a carbon footprint quiz focuses upon the land area needed to absorb carbon dioxide emissions, an ecological footprint quiz incorporates carbon footprint alongside the area necessary to support the harvest of primary products (e.g., cropland and forest cover) and infrastructure.
  • For more information about using ecological footprints in the classroom, see:


What students will be able to do

Depending on how the instructor employs this activity, students may learn to:

  • Quantify the amount of biologically productive land and sea area required to produce the resources they consume
  • Provide concrete examples of the interplay between ecological systems and socio-economic systems
  • Describe pro-environmental behaviors in terms of energy efficiency—which behaviors are more versus less efficient?
  • Observe, evaluate, and better understand the basis for their own pro-environmental behavior.

Ways that this activity enriches the engagement of citizens with social and civic problems having underlying scientific issues

This activity connects to several SENCER ideals, including:

  • SENCER robustly connects science and civic engagement by teaching “through” complex, contested, capacious, current, and unresolved public issues “to” basic science.

The ecological footprint exercise is an analytic tool for unpacking the impact of human behavior on ecological systems. Climate change can be traced to humanity’s overuse of Earth’s finite resources, and the ecological footprint exercise enables us to quantify the impact of extracting and processing the materials we use.

  • SENCER invites students to put scientific knowledge and scientific method to immediate use on matters of immediate interest to students.

Self-relevant material automatically captures students’ attention. The ecological footprint quiz starts with systematic inquiry into how they live and provides immediate, usually surprising, feedback about their lifestyles.

  • SENCER helps reveal the limits of science by identifying the elements of public issues where science doesn’t help us decide what to do.

What does scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change look like? Do we have such consensus? If not, should we wait to take action until we do? This connection paves the way for study of the relationship between science and public policy.

  • SENCER shows the power of science by identifying the dimensions of a public issue that can be better understood with certain mathematical and scientific ways of knowing.

Our collective behavior is taxing the biocapacity of our planet. Ecological footprint analyses can capture the degree of disconnect between how we live and the resources available to sustain our lifestyles. Ecological footprint analyses enable us—require us—to account for the entire life cycle of our consumption habits.

  • SENCER conceives the intellectual project as practical and engaged from the start, as opposed to science education models that view the mind as a kind of “storage shed” where abstract knowledge may be secreted for vague potential uses.

The ecological footprint exercise is a direct invitation to students to consider their role in the problem of climate change. The ecological footprint exercise immediately invites questioning as students seek to understand why their footprints are so high.

  • SENCER seeks to extract from the immediate issues the larger, common lessons about scientific processes and methods.

Students’ exploration of the assumptions made by the ecological footprint calculation can lead to their consideration of scientific values and assumptions more broadly.

  • SENCER locates the responsibilities (the burdens and the pleasures) of discovery as the work of the student.

This activity relies upon guided discovery rather than pure discovery. It assumes that students learn best by selecting relevant incoming information, organizing it into a coherent structure, and integrating it with other organized knowledge (Mayer, 2004). To this end, the ecological footprint exercise enables students to independently study how their specific behavior patterns comprise their ecological footprint, and then work with their classmates to link their individual-level behavior to the collective behavior of cities or nations.

  • SENCER, by focusing on contested issues, encourages student engagement with “multidisciplinary trouble” and with civic questions that require attention now. By doing so, SENCER hopes to help students overcome both unfounded fears and unquestioning awe of science.

Climate change is one of the wicked problems of our time. Report after report examines whether we have surpassed various tipping points, ominously concluding in some cases that humans cannot undo what they have done to the biosphere. The tone of these reports is often dark and pessimistic, when instead we must strive to teach about climate change in ways that arouse hope and motivate behavior change.


The College Board’s Enduring Understandings That Connect Most Closely


Big Idea 3: Changes that occur as a result of interactions are constrained by conservation laws

Enduring Understanding 5.A: Certain quantities are conserved, in the sense that the changes of those quantities in a given system are always equal to the transfer of that quantity to or from the system by all possible interactions with other systems.

Other fundamental scientific questions potentially addressed: The ecological footprint exercise could be a useful introduction to physics in the context of energy supply and climate change. After all, does the push for growth and development not seek to defy the laws of physics? Life is in essence prolonged departure from thermodynamic equilibrium. In effect, the human enterprise is thermodynamically positioned to consume the ecosphere from the inside out (Rees, 1999).


Additional Resources

Ecological footprint quizzes

Carbon footprint quizzes


Brooks, A. 2011. Ecological footprint feedback: Motivating or discouraging? Social Influence 6 (2), 113-128.

Gardner, G. T., and P. C. Stern. 2008. The short list: The most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment 50: 13-24.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist 59 (1): 14-19.

Rees, W. (1999). Scale, complexity, and the conundrum of sustainability. In M. Kenny and J. Meadowcroft (eds.), Planning sustainability. New York: Routledge.

Sample Responses to Discussion Questions

How large is your footprint compared to others in the class? First, analyze classroom-level data. What does the distribution look like? Next, compare the class’s average footprint to the national averages (see the “footprint for nations” area under “footprint basics” in the quiz).

  • “If the entire global population of 7,262,697,500 lived in the same manner as I did, the earth would be overran with pollution, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would be significantly higher, and the oceans would be more acidic and rising every day.”
  • “My footprint was 4.3 planets. Although it might be some serious hindsight bias to say I’m not surprised, I don’t believe I am. The number that is your “ecological footprint” is the number that represents how many planets we would need to sustain our race if everyone on the planet lives like you do. Not only do we live in a well off country, we live in a particularly well off, and high-consumption area of that country, so my number was unsurprisingly high. I was however surprised when I re-took the quiz and answered all of the questions in what I felt was the most conservative way, and the number was over two planets! So according to the ecological footprint quiz, basically anyone in our country is over their allotted “footprint”, which was certainly frightening.”
  • “What was surprising was the comparison of my footprint to the size of the footprints of those around me. Seeing as many of the people around me reported scores around 5 planets or more, instead of being at the high end of planet use, I was now at the low end. I was surprised by this difference and curious as to why there was such a difference. From what I could tell, it appeared as though the biggest difference was in travel expenses, whether it be driving or flying. Where I live most places are in walking distance and public transportation is popular; in contrast, my friends who live in more rural areas must drive many miles in order to reach their destination making their travel needs much higher.”
  • “Once I completed my global footprint quiz, the test came back and said there would need to be 4.6 Earths for my consumption levels. This startled me. I wondered what portion of the quiz gave me such a high score. Then once I found out the class average was around the same area, a mixed reaction surfaced over me. At first, I was relieved to hear that I was middle of the pack yet I don’t want everyone using 4.6 earths. Although everyone had different values, no one’s quality of life was terrible. Everyone was still able to go to Butler and have the basics in life. If everyone in the world had a higher total number of Earths consumed, we would be quickly headed toward rock bottom.”

How much control do you have over the size of your ecological footprint?

  • “One’s control over the size of his footprint is somewhat limited due to the nature of developed societies. For example, in America it is nearly impossible for certain individuals to live productive lives without the use of automobiles and commercial airliners—both significant contributors to one’s ecological footprint.”
  • “Lots of hope was lost for me based on my second, experimental take on the quiz. Sadly convenience and monetary restrictions make it so incredibly difficult to cut your own footprint back to a reasonable number.”

What are the implications of reducing footprint size for a person’s quality of life? Is pro-environmental behavior likely to compromise happiness?

  • “When considering how to reduce your environmental impact, it is important to remember that reducing the size of your footprint doesn’t mean reducing your quality of life; footprint reduction largely means learning to live more efficiently. Most often this manifests itself through simple changes in one’s lifestyle: making an effort to purchase local foods, investing in more energy efficient appliances and vehicles, and utilizing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. There are many ways to enhance one’s quality of life while lowering impact such as purchasing an electric car that will have a positive impact on the environment, while providing the advantages that come with new technology.”
  • “I do not believe that reducing the size of one’s footprint has any correlation whatsoever with someone’s quality of life, undoubtedly not a reduction in the quality of life. I know that I’ve always been someone that wishes they had lived in times long past. I envy the people that lived in the days of simplicity, as in less technology, and closer knit, personal communities. With the explosion of both technology and transportation we now live in a society where it is nearly impossible to stay connected and be successful without utilizing technology and transportation that use up such an extraordinary amount of resources. We are a selfish race that is constantly saying things like “it won’t run out in our lifetime.” I hate that. It shouldn’t have to run out.”