California Needs 8 Californias To Support Itself At The Rate It’s Using Up The Earth

A state-by-state breakdown of how quickly we’re burning through our ecological budget.

California Needs 8 Californias To Support Itself At The Rate It’s Using Up The Earth
[Top Photo: Flickr user Don DeBold]

The U.S. has abundant natural resources, but they’re still not enough to meet our huge appetites for energy, food, clothing, and other goods and services. According to a new report, we use up about twice the renewable resources available to us, which means by mid-July we’ve already broken through this year’s ecological budget.


The report comes from the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank that specializes in ecological budget analysis, and Earth Economics, a non-profit group based in Tacoma, Washington. It finds that only 16 states are living within their ecological means, with California, Texas and Florida running the biggest deficits (that is, the difference between their natural resources and consumption).

The report assesses footprints by counting a state’s use of plant-based food and fiber, livestock, fish, timber, the space it uses for urban infrastructure, and the amount of forest it has to absorb CO2. It then subtracts its consumption of those things. The calculations are made in terms of “global acres,” a unit of biocapacity that makes it easy to compare the productivity of very different places around the world.

USDA Flickr

Alaska is by far the biggest creditor among U.S. states, owing to its huge landmass and relatively small population. It’s followed by South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska, which have the same advantages. At the other end of the scale comes California, which effectively needs eight Californias to sustain itself, according to the analysis.

“California’s per capita biocapacity is … much smaller than that of the United States, primarily due to its high population and the aridity of much of the state. Drought threatens to further decrease the state’s biocapacity,” the report says.

States make up their deficits by importing resources from other states or countries, running down their resources (say, through overfishing), or by emitting excess carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (that is, more CO2 than its forests can absorb).

Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware have the highest per person ecological footprints (calculated by dividing a state’s net capacity by its population). New York, Idaho, and Arkansas have the smallest per person footprints. Before consumption, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Arizona have the least biocapacity, while Alaska, Texas, and Michigan have the most.


“We strongly believe it is possible to live within the means of nature, without sacrificing human well-being,” says Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network. “But doing so requires decision-makers to make strategic investments in infrastructure and our natural capital and set policies aimed at conserving our planet’s resources.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.