From footprints to handprints: Treading lightly on Earth…

Nalaka Gunawardene

This is me making an impression at the Global Knowledge 3rd Conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 2007. Everyone was asked to dip a hand in a saucer of paint and then press it on a large sheet of paper. In the end it created a montage of hand prints from people all over the world.

The idea was a neatly symbolic one, but as with everything else at the GK3 conference (and with its organiser, the GKP), it didn’t go any further. Good intentions, poor implementation.

But the same concept of hand print was used far more cleverly and innovatively at another large international conference I attended in November 2007. The 4th International Conference on Environment Education , hosted by the Government of India and co-sponsored by the UNESCO and UNEP, was held at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Ahmedabad. That multi-faceted event saw the launch of several initiatives, including Handprint – action towards sustainability.

The concept of Handprint is to decrease our ecological footprints by taking more actions towards Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Ecological Footprint (EF) as a concept has been around for over 15 years. The term and concept of Ecological Footprint were proposed in 1992 by William Rees, a Canadian professor at the University of British Columbia. In 1995, Rees and coauthor Mathis Wackernagel published Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth.

EF quantifies our demand on Nature and natural systems. It measures the amount of biologically productive land and water required to meet our demands (for food, timber, shelter), and to absorb the pollution we generate. Using this assessment, it is possible to estimate how many planet Earths it would take to support all of humanity if everybody lived a given lifestyle.

For example, if everyone aspires to European lifestyles, we are going to need three planets. And for American way of life, four.

As of now, the Earth is the only naturally habitable planet that we know and have — which drives home the point that we have to contain, and eventually reduce, our ecological footprint. Some, like this cartoonist, fear that it’s already too late…

Read Sep 2007 blog post: Talking Big Foot in Yetiland


Ecological footprint is a useful – in fact, revealing – measure of our species living beyond its ecological means. But it’s an inherently negative one. This is what promoted our colleagues at CEE – an internationally acknowledged centre for excellence in education for sustainable development – to come up with the related, but wholly more positive, concept of Handprint.

Whereas footprint measures our impact on the planet and its resources, Handprint will help quantify what we do to tread lightly on Earth — reducing our consumption of energy and resources, and being more considerate about the waste we generate.

As CEE says, there are many drivers of change to lessen the footprint. ESD is one of the important ones. Others include technology, policy, legal measures, systems and financial incentives.

Handprint is specifically a measure of ESD action. In the presence of over 1,000 officials, educators, activists and youth, Handprint was launched with the call: Increase your handprint; decrease your footprint!

A new website will soon be online at, expanding on this concept.

While CEE is taking the concept to a whole new level and to millions who need to know and heed this message, the idea itself has been talked about by others for sometime.

For example, in May 2006, Alex Steffen wrote about it in the highly informative and inspirational website Worldchanging.

Steffen, who is executive editor of Worldchanging, wrote: “If we can imagine going climate negative, why can’t we imagine shrinking our ecological footprint until we zip past having any negative net ecological impact at all, until the operation of our daily lives heals the planet instead of hurts it? Until we transform, as I’ve said before, our ecological footprints into ecological handprints?”

TVE Asia Pacific‘s Saving the Planet TV series, currently in production, will feature a number of initiatives that will have a positive Handprint on the environment in selected countries in the Asia Pacific.

Clearly, Handprint is an area where interest and action will grow in the coming months and years.

Watch this space.

Related: Sep 2007: Way to blow our nose without blowing the planet

Photo courtesy Sasa Kralj

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “From footprints to handprints: Treading lightly on Earth…”

  1. The idea of created an assembly of imprints of hand of people all over the world was carefully symbolic but it is a good idee to acquaint of people. Indeed, it shows that we are a lot of people has to leave his ecologic footprint on the world and that the question of the environement must be put ask.

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