Mathis Wackernagel PhD 1994

Current Work:  Founder, Global Footprint Network

I grew up in Switzerland, a small, populated, land-locked country, yet with relatively high per-capita incomes. As a city boy, I relished my vacations on a farm “helping” the farmer with spreading manure, milking cows, feeding pigs, cutting hey, or just doing mischief trying to dam a little brook with rocks. The farmers’ view of the world made me intimately familiar with ecological flows, and how everything we do ultimately depends on nature. Yet, I wondered how Switzerland could have such high incomes with so few natural resources? Why were we taught that economic strength comes only from human ingenuity, not resources? After all, my parents and grandparents told me about World War II, when Switzerland was suddenly surrounded by enemy forces, and faced the reality of only being able to produce enough food for seven months per year. In 1973, we also experienced the oil crisis, which was lovely for us children as it led to three car-free Sundays (but may have worried our parents). Around that time, my father showed me an influential book with crude computer curves generated by an MIT team: “Limits to Growth”. The book suggested that within my lifetime, enormous resource transformations would be needed if we wanted to avoid overshoot and collapse.

Driven by this interest and all its conundrums, I first studied engineering. I wanted to learn how to substitute fossil fuel with renewable energy. But it became clear to me that without social will, technology would not produce the desired outcomes. Therefore I was looking for follow-up studies, and applied for a scholarship at UBC’s SCARP. I did not know Vancouver nor Bill Rees, but was intrigued by the program description. Planning – translating knowledge into action – did not exist as an academic discipline in most of Europe.

Coming to Vancouver in 1989 was a huge breath of fresh air. I met Bill Rees, who passionately lectured and debated sustainability and ecological economics. It was fabulous because in my previous academic exposure there was no passion, there was no engaging debate with students, and sustainability was not taken seriously by official programs (these issues were only discussed in voluntary student groups). The collegial atmosphere with fellow-students and faculty, the openness to explore any topic – perhaps amplified by West Coast culture, and the focus on practical solutions intrigued me. I was delighted when Bill invited to me to stay longer for a PhD. His interest in carrying capacity and resource scarcity, the biological dimension of our economies, and his willingness to debate made my stay at SCARP a rich and productive experience. It was heightened by a group of faculty coming together under the name of “UBC Task Force for Healthy and Sustainable Communities” for whom I became one of the researchers. Bill and Peter Boothroyd were active SCARP members. The group was chaired by Bob Woolard, a professor in family medicine.  This interdisciplinary support, caring faculty interest, wide-ranging intellectual input made work at SCARP fertile.

Bill Rees had had suggested some years earlier the imaginary “regional capsule” concept – how big of a glass capsule would need to be put over a city to make it materially functional, including the space for food production and waste absorption. He also commented on the biophysical dimension of sustainability to the Brundtland commission (which chose to ignore those aspects). My first term paper for him presented a calculation of the “carrying capacity of British Columbia” under various consumption assumptions. Constant conversations and discussions with Bill led to my PhD dissertation: the development of the Ecological Footprint.

Wanting to apply this insight to practice after graduating in 1994, I soon entered the applied research world, including starting with my wife Susan Burns Global Footprint Network back in 2003 (see This organization strives to translate knowledge into action (the goal is to make ecological limits central to decision-making). Some national and local governments have taken notice, as well as investors. There is still a long way to go for industrial economies to become compatible with nature’s resource budget. So far, our work has earned us accolades from around the world, many of which I had the honor to share with Bill. Still, I’d much prefer more action, less accolades.