How many planets?

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
June 19, 2007

To learn how reprehensible you are, visit www.myfootprint.org to determine your ecological footprint. Five minutes later, after you have breezed through the 14-question survey inquiring as to where you live, how you get around, how often you eat meat, and whether your home has electricity and running water, you will discover that five to six Earths, or maybe even more, would be required to sustain the planet’s human population if everyone squandered as many resources as you.
The number of planets needed to
support different lifestyles,
according to an "ecological footprint"
test at http://www.myfootprint.org.
Myfootprint.Org, Kagan McLeod
National Post

Redo the survey, imagining that you have reformed your profligate lifestyle. You now live in a tiny house. You take public transit daily, refusing to even share an automobile ride with a friend. You eat meat only once a week. You have fewer than 2.2 children. You take no trips by plane.

Not good enough. "If everyone lived like you," the Web site tells you, "we would need 3.0 planets."

Think "subsistence." Give up that tiny house and move into a hut with no electricity or running water. Give up public transit and ride a mule. Forsake meat altogether and forsake your children, too.

Still not good enough – "we would need 1.4 planets" to support a world in which everyone lived like you, the Web site admonishes. To get your footprint down to about one planet, it turns out, you also need to become a vegan – no eggs, cheese or other animal products – or to give up on oranges and bananas, which are imported from faraway places.

The ecological footprint is the 1992 brainchild of William Rees, a British Columbia professor of regional planning, who counted up all the productive land on Earth (he says it’s easy), divided it by the world’s population, and subtracted the amount of land needed to absorb the carbon dioxide and other wastes that humans produce. The result is the average footprint available to humans at our current population.

This simple model offended environmentalists, however. It penalized organic farming, which has low yields, and also encouraged the conversion of original ecosystems to high-yield monoculture crops. When applied to countries, it made Canadians seem very virtuous because of our vast agricultural lands.

So Rees with others, and then others without Rees, began churning out new, improved footprint models. When these, too, didn’t produce the results they needed they layered biodiversity models over the footprint models in repeated attempts to overcome the continuing shortcomings.

They failed, and will continue to do so, and not only because their crude one-size-fits-all approach to the environment is profoundly anti-ecological – Earth abounds with ecological niches, each with its own characteristics, each having different productive capacities in different hands at different times. These models fail because they have it backward. Our footprint doesn’t decrease as we approach a subsistence economy, and meat consumption doesn’t doom us to wasteful agriculture. Just the opposite.

The first settlers in my city of Toronto, for example, were Indians, who initially lived in communities of several hundred, later increasing to several thousand. These Iroquois were Big Foots. Apart from requiring outlying hunting and fishing camps, along with foraging grounds, Iroquois agriculture required about one hectare per person, which they would clear by girdling trees (removing the bark at their base to kill them) and burning brush and weeds. The soil in these fields, because it wasn’t manured, quickly became depleted, forcing the Iroquois to relocate their villages to nearby areas. The scarred lands that they abandoned only slowly returned to wilderness.

The footprint of Toronto residents, as with those in other parts of North America, became smaller with the arrival of European settlers, who brought with them livestock and a more efficient agriculture. With livestock manure replenishing the soil, settlements became permanent and surrounding areas were put to better use.

With further improvements in agriculture, the footprint became smaller still. By 1900, half as many farmers were required to feed us as in colonial times, along with far less land. That trend continues today, with ever less land needed to feed ever more people living ever longer and at ever higher standards – malnutrition, once a major concern, has all but vanished here. Likewise, with virtually all other commodities, humans do more and more with less and less. We are more resource-efficient now than at any time in human history.

To ecological-footprint advocates such as Rees, technological improvements do not demonstrate human resourcefulness and adaptability. Rather, they are part of the problem.

"We can show that, in fact, in the world’s most technological economically efficient countries such as Japan, the United States, West Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, as their technologies have improved, as efficiencies have steadily increased over the last couple of decades, so has per-capita consumption," Rees states. "And therefore, of course, gross consumption and gross waste production are also increasing. I would even argue that this is a result of increased efficiencies."

Even the high-tech, low-resource use information-technology industries, which generate great wealth with little more resources than those required for a silicone chip, draw regrets. "The problem is, if you look a little deeper, people in these kinds of high-end service and knowledge-based sectors are high-income earners," he adds. "Yes, we’re creating more of our money wealth through the knowledge-based sectors, but in so doing, our incomes are rising more rapidly, so per-capita consumption increases."

Ecological footprints are really not about living within our means, by making the most of the resources that we have in our world. They’re about making do with less on spiritual grounds – Rees asserts that a GDP of $7,000 to $8,000 per person is all that’s needed to maximize human happiness.

Ecological footprints are really not about ecology, either.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and author of Toronto Sprawls: A History (University of Toronto Press).

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