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Global Citizen: Mathis Wackernagel

15 May, 2018

“The urban elites live in an illusion bubble that we can always get more from somewhere else.
But we are running out somewhere else”

At an early age, Swiss-born Mathis Wackernagel was startled by the importance of farmers to city dwellers like those in his home town of Basel, Switzerland. He noted that farmers provided urbanites with a steady supply of milk, cheese, and fruit and nuts, but would be left with very little economic reward. Poignantly, he also noted that the land that provided these essentials was diminishing at an alarming rate, sparking an interest in the ecological dynamic between humans and nature’s resources.

At that time, Mathis was curious about nature’s provision for humankind and, in turn, people’s dependence on it. He shares: “Being exposed to the first-ever oil crisis in the early 1970s as an 11-year-old child marked me … [I thought] in my lifetime, we actually might not be able to depend any longer on fossil fuel.” He goes on to relate his memories of Switzerland’s four car-free Sundays in 1974, which were part of the government’s bid to safeguard the country’s oil provision amid global price hikes and insecurity. For him, these Sundays were among the most memorable weekends of his childhood. The initiative saw motorways, streets, and roads opened up to bicyclists and roller skaters, and even horse-drawn carriages. “This was great fun for us children. But my parents were probably a bit more worried. I was convinced the world would be oil-free within 10 years, leading us to live very differently, and possibly better. We would have to reimagine, redesign, and rebuild from scratch,” he says. Since then, Mathis has passionately imagined and advocated for a world in which humans live within the means of nature rather than constantly eroding it.

Born in November 1962, in Basel, Mathis, wishing to explore the possibilities of renewable energy, obtained his first degree in mechanical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He later completed a Ph.D. in community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he developed, with his doctoral supervisor, the Ecological Footprint, a resource-accounting approach. During his formative years, Mathis also resided in Costa Rica, Denmark, France, and Mexico, and still has a soft spot in his heart for each of these countries.

Today, Mathis lives in California, US, and spends his time advancing humanity’s knowledge and understanding of people’s natural resource situation. As the CEO of the Global Footprint Network, Mathis oversees the use and improvement of the Ecological Footprint, a one-of-a-kind metric that compares overall human demand on nature against what Earth can renew. Global Footprint Network is a non-profit research organization committed to ensuring that policymakers around the world align their decisions with the reality of Earth’s limited ability to fulfill all of humanity’s needs indefinitely, considering our current unsustainable rate of consumption and population growth.

Every year Global Footprint Network calculates the Ecological Footprints of more than 200 countries and regions, using the latest available data. The results are published on the organization’s open data platform, making it easy for risk analysts, policy-makers, investors, and civil society leaders to be informed about all countries’ resource situations. According to the organization’s latest accounts, humanity’s total demand now exceeds what the planet can renew by over 70%, meaning that after 214 days, i.e. by early August, humanity will have demanded as much from the planet as Earth can renew in the entire year. Global Footprint Network recalculates this day every year and marks it as Earth Overshoot Day, which is essentially the day when humanity has used the planet’s annual resource budget for the year and starts to eat into the principal.

It is possible to use more from nature than nature renews for a while, but the consequences are freshwater depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. Mathis says: “We invite the public to #MoveTheDate, meaning support ways to push Earth Overshoot Day later on the calendar. If we pushed the date back five days a year, we’d be living within the means of less than one planet Earth before 2050. For instance, if we cut carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use by half, we would move the date 89 days forward.” Last year, Earth Overshoot Day was covered by top media outlets around the world.

Despite the highly regarded Paris Climate Agreement in which almost 200 nations committed to reduce global climate change to below 1.5° C, Mathis does not see sufficient evidence that the signatories are acting accordingly and are preparing themselves for such a world. He laments that cities and countries are reconfiguring their infrastructure at too slow a pace and that the role of the individual family is underestimated, despite the fact that preparing ourselves as individuals and as societies for such a world is in our direct interest. Mathis believes that our biggest opportunities lie in the ways we structure our cities and build our houses — to be compact and efficient; how we power ourselves — to use photovoltaics rather than coal; how we feed ourselves — to avoid waste and eat lower on the food chain; and in reducing the rate at which the global population is growing. He argues that smaller families can generate many benefits, including improved educational and health outcomes as well as, naturally, more sustainable resource availability per person.

Still, more and more people are engaging personally in making a difference. In 2017, when Global Footprint Network launched a new version of its Footprint Calculator, which allows individuals to calculate their ecological footprint, over 700,000 people from around the world used it within three months — a momentous achievement for the organization. There are plans to translate the calculator into other languages, such as Chinese and Hindi, which is no surprise in light of growing international recognition for Mathis’ work.

In 2011, he was one of four winners of the fifth cycle of the Zayed International Prize for the Environment (UAE), in acknowledgement of “environmental action leading to a positive change in society”. The following year, he was the co-recipient of the Blue Planet Prize (Japan), which is awarded annually to “outstanding individuals whose work … contribute[s] significantly to the improvement of the global environment”. Naturally, as an environmental pioneer, Mathis has received numerous other awards, including the Prix Nature Swisscanto (2013) and the International Association for Impact Assessment Award (2015). In 2017, Ooom publication listed Mathis as among the world’s most inspiring people (he came in at position 18 out of 100, ahead of the likes of Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Deepak Chopra).

During 2011 and 2015, Mathis was the Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Visiting Professor at Cornell University, where he offered classes on sustainability. Academically, Mathis speaks very fondly of his Ph.D. supervisor, Prof. William Rees, whom he considers a mentor. He credits Rees for teaching him how to “communicate enthusiastically with audiences”, a valuable lesson considering that public speaking takes up a chunk of Mathis’ time. In 2015, he delivered an informative TEDx talk titled “How much nature do we have? How much do we use?” in San Francisco.

Other highly influential people in Mathis’ life include his primary school teacher, for “enlivening our desire for learning and increasing our curiosity”, a zoologist uncle “who inspired me to think outside the box and follow my passion”, and a high school art teacher, for his compassionate and attentive listening. When asked about whom he regards as intellectual giants, Mathis is quick to provide an answer, naming environmentalist Dr. Donella Meadows, economist Herman Daly, and renowned psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (who advocated non-violent communication).

That Mathis mentions Meadows and Rosenberg — both of whom are deceased — as influencers reveals the value he places on posterity and leaving a legacy, such as his own lifelong body of work, and the importance of attaining all the goals which he aims to still achieve. “If I am seen as a positive force in service of enabling all people’s prosperity forever, then I would be quite satisfied,” he says. Of course, Mathis is aware of the trials that go with ensuring human and environmental prosperity, but he is certainly up for the challenge. In his own words: “I also know that change will not happen if I cannot make it inviting. If I view others as obstacles, how can they feel invited to participate? This is a great litmus test: I often ask myself — am I truly committed to making this other person’s life more wonderful? Because if not, engaging with them is unlikely to produce any productive outcome”.

Outside of ‘work’ — Mathis doesn’t consider his work to be work — he enjoys cooking, hiking, bike rides, and various forms of creative expression, occasionally taking out his cello from the closet. “Getting lost in music” is another of his preferred leisure activities: his current musical obsessions are Fantastic Negrito from Oakland, his current home town, and Stromae from Belgium. When he is not traveling, Mathis enjoys being involved in homemaking with his son and wife, Susan Burns, with whom he founded Global Footprint Network — from their living room. All this helps him recoup for the great tasks that lie ahead.

The real work is to “align our decision-making with the physical reality in which we operate. I call it ‘one-planet reality’. How can we stop living off the principal of our planet and just live off the interest? How can this be attractive and become the obvious normality?”, Mathis wonders. Humanity awaits his champion leadership in answering these important questions.