Focus and Sustainability

Michigan’s pace of resource use gives state an ‘ecological debt’

Despite having the third-most resources, Michigan uses more than it regenerates.

September 4, 2015
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LANSING — The nation hit Ecological Deficit Day recently, thanks in part to states like Michigan that use more resources than they can regenerate.

A report by the California-based Global Footprint Network and the Tacoma, Washington, nonprofit group Earth Economics details resource availability and the environmental footprint of all 50 states. That footprint includes the unsustainable practices that broke Michigan’s ecological budget.

It’s not just the fault of the Great Lakes State. In fact, only 16 states can boast they use fewer resources than they renew each year.

“Not everyone’s in the same boat,” said Mathis Wackernagel, a sustainability advocate and Global Footprint Network president. “It’s not a problem but a global storm with many local boats occupying many local situations. We should be asking if our own boats are ready.”

Sustainability means “recognizing there’s a significant budget constraint, the fact that there’s only one planet,” he said.

The groups measured the states’ ecological footprint — a measure of land and water needed by its residents to produce and consume resources and to absorb their waste. They also measured the ability of those states to provide the resources, called biocapacity.

It’s complicated stuff.

A separate report describes the methodology and background of the terms and statistics they used. The deficit is measured in global acres — acres that are adjusted according to the world average for resource productivity in cropland, forests and fishing areas.

States fare better when their biocapacity is high and their ecological footprint is low.

A high biocapacity may be related to a state’s ability to re-grow trees or absorb carbon emissions. A low ecological footprint may mean a state efficiently consumes its resources, but it also may simply be related to a low population.

“The most limiting factor is the premise that our resource dependence isn’t as high as it is,” Wackernagel said. “Even for fossil fuels, the limiting factor is not what exists underground, but the ability to re-absorb what is burned.”

According to the report, Michigan is among the top three states for resource abundance, trailing only Alaska and Texas. Its biocapacity is more than 116 million global acres, which allots 11.6 global acres per person in the state.

Despite owning some of the most ecologically productive lands, Michigan residents used an average of 16.6 global acres per person. The ecological footprint, refined by Wackernagel, also factors in how much globe-warming carbon Michigan’s residents produced.

This puts the state in debt by more than 47 million global acres.

The Global Footprint Network intends to use the data to help cities and states measure their natural capital, identifying deficits, challenges and opportunities to improve their use of resources.

Despite increased focus on the American West, some states with the greatest natural capital — Michigan and Texas — are still vulnerable to water shortages, withdrawing more than can be replenished annually, according to the report.

In addition to water, Wackernagel asks states to consider the impact of long commutes and large families — how states build their cities, how they power their homes and how they can continue providing resources to the “local boats” of each state.

“We want to motivate institutions at the state and federal levels to consider their capacity, how many slices of the United States pie they consume or contribute,” he said.

Ecological Deficit Day was July 14, the date when the U.S. was no longer living within the means of its own natural resources — or ecological budget — for the year.

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