By Donella Meadows
–March 28, 1996–
Picture a city, with skyscrapers, roads, cars, towers, lights all jammed together. Now picture a huge, bare human foot reaching down from the city, stepping on the earth, crushing daisies.
That’s the image William Rees, professor of planning at the University of British Columbia, instills in the minds of his students. He calls it the Ecological Footprint, the amount of land the city actually uses, considering where its food is grown, where its water and energy and materials come from and where its wastes flow.
Rees asks his students: What would happen if you put a glass dome over a city, so nothing goes in or comes out? Unlike science fiction cities, where a dome is often supposed to protect inhabitants from a hostile environment, a real city, if it were enclosed, would suffocate or starve within days. The environment isn’t a passive green background, it isn’t just for recreation, it’s essential for life. That’s what Rees wants his students to see. That, plus the fact that we use a lot of environment.
He has the students calculate the Ecological Footprint of Vancouver, where their university is. The urban area is home to 1.8 million people and covers about a million acres. But when they count the energy and materials flowing into the city and the garbage and pollutants flowing out, the students find that Vancouver uses 19 times as much land as the territory it sits upon — some of that land on the other side of the world.
The average Canadian needs 10.3 acres of farmland, forest, mines and dumps to support his or her lifestyle. Rees can break it down: 3.1 acres for food, 2.1 acres for housing (including the materials and energy needed to maintain the house), 2 acres each for transportation and consumer goods, the rest for schools, hospitals and other services.
In the U.S. we step with even bigger feet — an average of 12.2 acres each. The Dutch use only 8 acres per person, but the Ecological Footprint of the whole 15 million of them covers 15 times the area of their country. The Footprint of the average Indian is just 1 acre, but 910 million Indians make a Footprint that exceeds India’s area by 35 percent. The difference is made up partly by imports, Rees says, and partly by depleting India’s natural capital, especially its forests.
If everyone on earth lived like the average North American and we utilized fully every productive acre (no wilderness), we would need three Earths to support the present world population.
Saying it another way, if we divided the productive area of the world up evenly, each person’s “fair earthshare” would be 3.6 acres. Given predicted population growth, by the year 2040 we’ll each get 2.2 acres.
By now the student’s faces are getting long. These are depressing numbers, they say. Not really, says Rees. They’re just what’s so. They’re crucially important for responsible planning.
Rees and one of his students, Mathis Wackernagel have produced a readable book called “Our Ecological Footprint” (New Society Publishers) with funny pictures of big feet coming out of the likes of bridges and tomatoes. In the first chapter a foot-like character named Dr. Footnote answers objections to the idea of Ecological Footprints. Here’s what he has to say, when accused of pessimism:
“Acknowledging that nature has a finite capacity is not pessimistic. Just realistic. It makes room for wise decisions…. Ecological Footprint analysis starts from the premise that humanity must live within global carrying capacity. It also maintains that if we choose wisely it might even be possible to increase our quality of life.”
Wackernagel and Rees show how various choices affect the size of our Footprints. People who live in cities, for example, have relatively low housing and transport footprints. Apartment buildings use 50 percent less heat than free-standing units of same floor space. An energy efficient car can reduce your transport footprint by a factor of three, taking a bus by a factor of five, riding a bicycle by a factor of 12. Eating less meat and buying less processed and packaged food decreases your food footprint by a factor of three. A tomato grown in a heated greenhouse with artificial fertilizer and pesticides has 10-20 times the footprint of an organic tomato grown in an open field.
There’s even hope for India, though it has already grown beyond its national carrying capacity while many of its people still live in poverty. The south Indian state of Kerala has a per capita income of about a dollar a day, but its life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and birth rates are similar to those of Europe. The reason is what Wackernagel and Rees call “good social capital” — a thriving democracy and high public investment in schools, health care, and other social services.
“We are victims of a pervasive cultural myth that a diminished economy equals deprivation,” say Wackernagel and Rees. “This is assuredly not the case. With some assistance from human ingenuity, the ecosphere can produce material adequacy for all. [But] it would be foolhardy to underestimate the difficulty associated with lowering the material expectations of today’s consumer society…. If the basic message of Ecological Footprint analysis is true, sustainable development … will require a transformation … far beyond anything the political process has been willing to contemplate. To those who say that any such vision is economically impractical and politically unrealistic, we can only respond that the prevailing vision is ecologically destructive and morally bankrupt (to say nothing of potentially lethal).
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996