Skip to Content

Watch Your Step

Understanding the Impact of Your Personal Consumption on the Environment


Philip Camill
Department of Biology
Bowdoin College


This case makes use of the concept of the "ecological footprint," developed by Wackernagel and colleagues to quantify the amount of land area required to sustain the lifestyle of a population of any size. Students calculate their consumption of energy and materials to determine their personal ecological footprint and in the process learn about concepts of sustainability, ecological efficiency, and energy flow up food chains as well as the moral and ethical dimensions of how our lifestyles impact the Earth. The case includes an Excel spreadsheet for students to track their personal consumption of resources, available from Supplemental Materials. Developed for an introductory biology course, the case could also be used in upper level courses such as ecology, conservation biology, evolution, diversity, and the biology of social issues, or in a non-majors biology course.


  • Examine the implications of a strict definition of sustainability.
  • Understand how personal material consumption impacts the environment, particularly in relation to population growth.
  • Use the concept of an ecological footprint to measure sustainability.
  • Appreciate how our lifestyles, especially the attributes of living in a wealthy, suburbanized, automobile dependent culture, impact the global environment and the ability for citizens in other countries to acquire a fair share of Earth's resources.
  • Understand how much land area it takes to support our direct and indirect consumption of food, housing, transportation, goods, services, and generation of waste.
  • Consider the potential global environmental impacts as developing nations aspire to achieve industrial economies similar to that of the United States.


sustainability; footprint; biosphere; personal consumption; population growth; carrying capacity;

Topical Areas


Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division


PDF, Excel

Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Ecology  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

Case teaching notes are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.

Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.

Supplemental Materials

The following spreadsheet is used for this case study.