Biden’s 30×30 Campaign Must Account for “Ecological Footprint” of a Fast-Growing U.S. Population

By Gary Wockner

President Biden made national news back in May when he launched the “America The Beautiful”[1] campaign that has “a goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” Sometimes called the “30 by 30” campaign (or “30×30”), this goal has so far been broadly embraced by conservation leaders, hundreds of non-profit groups, tribal governments, and eleven U.S. states[2].

President Biden appointed renowned scientist Patrick Gonzalez to “assess the latest research” on the administration’s “biodiversity conservation policies” including the “30 by 30” conservation goal[3], according to a news release from the University of California at Berkeley where Gonzalez works as a forest ecologist.

The 30×30 campaign should be broadly supported because America’s landscape, natural environment, and biodiversity are increasingly getting bulldozed to make way for more growth. In fact, a 2019 recent report by the Center for American Progress (“CAP”) stated that: “Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development.”[4]

This loss of natural areas has severe and broad-ranging environmental impacts including decreases in wetlands, wildlife habitat, forests, and the carbon sequestration and climate resiliency that natural landscapes provide for our country. This loss of natural areas is also a loss of outdoor recreation opportunities for people and of a sense of human solitude and quality of life that nature provides us.

Population growth in the U.S. is the single biggest driver causing this loss of natural landscapes. The CAP report further states, “The scientific team found that human activities are causing the persistent and rapid loss of America’s natural areas. The human footprint in the continental United States grew by more than 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017.”

It’s great that CAP introduces the idea of the “human footprint” which is critical to understanding the impact our species has on the landscape. We can further describe human footprint in two ways that are important to achieving any success with the 30×30 campaign – 1) geographic footprint and 2) ecological footprint.

First, “geographic footprint” is specifically what the CAP report and Biden’s 30×30 campaign are mostly focusing on. Human development literally grows on top of, and subdivides, the natural landscape as it builds housing, roads, shopping malls, and pipelines across the landscape.

Further, some elected officials and political movements, including the Biden administration, try to restrict the sprawl of the human geographic footprint across the U.S. landscape by increasing the density of housing and the density of commercial structures inside of urban areas. Specifically Biden’s “Infrastructure Bill” added incentives for more dense housing including the “relaxing of zoning laws” to pack more housing and people into smaller urban spaces[5]. This push for more human density in cities – sometimes called the “Yes In My Backyard” (“YIMBY”) movement – has taken hold in several U.S. cities to control sprawl.

Second, is a broader and newer concept called “ecological footprint.” This ecological footprint includes not just the geographic encroachment of humans across the landscape, but also all of the ecological and environmental impacts caused by people.

Ecological Footprint analysis is a fascinating new movement and metric. An international organization – the “Global Footprint Network”[6] – describes the “ecological footprint” as the only metric that compares the resource demand of individuals, governments, and businesses against Earth’s capacity for biological regeneration.”

Your ecological footprint includes not just the components of your geographic footprint – housing, roads, shopping malls, and pipelines – but also includes the amount of climate-change gases you consume or cause to be emitted, the fishing grounds your eating habits impact, as well as the cropland, forestland, and grazing land used by your consumption habits. Further, your ecological footprint includes the industrial activity that keeps your life functioning such as electric utilities, automobile manufacturing facilities, and fossil fuel industries[7]. Finally, your ecological footprint includes all of your consumer choices – not just food, but also electronic devices in your home, granite countertops in your kitchen, and your travel and recreation activities.

Importantly, your ecological footprint can be very large despite what might appear to be a small geographic footprint. A person can live in a densely packed condominium building in a city in the U.S. but have consumption and travel habits that are dramatically more ecologically impactful than a suburban commuter in that same city. Your consumption habits can amplify your geographic footprint dramatically.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. population has grown at an average of 2 million people per year[8], increasing both the geographic footprint across the landscape and the ecological footprint across the U.S. and the planet. That’s why the 30×30 campaign, and Biden’s “America The Beautiful” campaign, need to take into account both the number of Americans and the consumption habits of Americans to account for the ecological footprint of our society.

It will be increasingly difficult, if not completely impossible, to conserve “30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030” if the U.S. population continues to grow.  A sound national population policy is an essential part of the America the Beautiful campaign.


[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/news-updates/2021/05/10/what-they-are-saying/
[2] https://www.natureamerica.org/supporters
[3] https://news.berkeley.edu/2021/08/30/uc-berkeley-scientist-patrick-gonzalez-to-advise-white-house-on-climate-change-and-biodiversity/
[4] https://americanprogress.org/article/much-nature-america-keep/
[5] https://www.independent.com/2021/08/01/bidens-infrastructure-bill-includes-affordable-housing/
[6] https://www.footprintnetwork.org/
[7] https://www.footprintnetwork.org/resources/data/
[8] https://www.statista.com/statistics/183457/united-states–resident-population/

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