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Step Lightly On the Planet

Footprinting sustainability

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Step Lightly On the Planet

Wealthiest countries have the largest ecological footprint per capita. The average Canadian requires eight hectares to support his/her consumer lifestyle.

Despite the debates that rage about climate change and sustainability, many of us remain unaware of our personal load on the planet. The idea of an ecological footprint was explicitly designed to raise that load to consciousness using simple concepts that everyone understands–consumption, pollution, and land.

The ecological footprint of a specified population is defined as the area of land-and-water ecosystems required, on a continuous basis, to produce the resources that the population consumes. It also includes the space required to assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on Earth the relevant land or water may be located.

The Rich Crowd the Poor

As might be expected, the wealthiest countries have the largest eco-footprints per capita–for example, the average Canadian requires nearly eight hectares to support his/her consumer lifestyle. The Europeans and Japanese are more energy and materially efficient and get by on just four to six hectares per capita. Contrast these rich country numbers with the mere half-hectare required to supply the average Bangladeshi or Mozambican.

Eco-footprinting clearly reflects social inequity, the widening gulf separating the lifestyles of the wealthy from those of the chronically impoverished. Average North Americans weigh 20 to 30 times more heavily on the planet than residents of the world’s poorest countries.

Four Drains On Sustainability

What has all this got to do with sustainability? Plenty. First, consumer demand on nature in densely populated, rich countries now outstrips domestic supply. The ecological footprints of the Netherlands and Japan, for example, exceed the land’s capacity by a factor of five or six. These countries are running massive ecological deficits with the rest of the world–in ecological terms, their citizens live mostly in other countries.

Second, the global average human ecological footprint is about 2.2 hectares while only about 1.8 hectares of productive land and water are available per capita. This means that the human enterprise has already overshot the long-term carrying capacity of the planet by more than 20 percent. Humanity is consuming more than the ecosphere can produce–we are living and growing by permanently depleting even renewable natural capital (fish stocks, forests, soil, water, and so on). This is the essence of unsustainability.

Third, North Americans consume about five times their fair share (1.8 hectares) of the world’s ecological and economic output. At the same time we are effectively setting material standards for the developing world. Problem: We would need four additional Earth-like planets to support just the present world population at North American material standards (and we expect an additional two billion people at the table by the middle of the century).

Fourth, consider that population eco-footprints are mutually exclusive appropriations. What is used by one population is not available for use by another. The simple fact is that the world’s nations are engaged in an increasingly intense competition for the earth’s (declining) biocapacity. In a rapidly changing world, uncontrolled globalization and the increasing entanglement of nations risks geopolitical turmoil and resource wars.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Eco-footprinting forces recognition that, with the world in overshoot, we cannot grow our way to sustainability. Instead we need to significantly reduce global energy and material consumption–80 percent less fossil fuel use, for example.

If the world community is to avoid global resource conflicts and achieve sustainability with equity, then–to paraphrase the words of esteemed spiritual and political leader M.K. Gandhi–the rich must learn to live on less, so that the poor may live at all. An unprecedented challenge, no doubt. Ironically, meeting it would actually increase everyone’s future well-being. (How? Well, that’s another story.)

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