Occupying the planet

I want points for this.   I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I did smugly think I would score better than average.   After all, I don’t commute to work in a car, I’ve worked in conservation most of my life, and most importantly, I don’t have kids.  But when I used the Global Footprint Network’s footprint calculator, I learned that it would still require 4.3 earths to support my lifestyle if everyone on Earth lived as I do.  That’s only 0.7 planets less than the average figure for Americans.

The online footprint calculator is a fun and easy reality check for anyone ready to have their ecological ego crushed.  You create an avatar complete with ‘do and clothes (sadly, no eco-friendly consignment shop option) who wanders around a neighborhood avoiding mega-resources that crash down around her as you answer questions about your life.  So when you answer the food question about how much meat you eat, for example, a butchershop lands on the block.   How much do you drive?  A car appears in the driveway.   At the end, the calculator tallies your score and tells you your resource breakdown in five major categories:  food, shelter, mobility, goods and services.

I got points for eating locally grown non-processed foods most of the time, driving an energy efficient car, limiting purchases of clothes and appliances, and of course recycling. (Big deal. Everybody recycles.)  But kids were not in the equation.  This despite the finding by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) that the single biggest thing Americans can do to reduce their long-term impact on the Earth is to not have children.  Their 2009 study concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other common things people often do to reduce their impact, like recycling or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.  The reasons are self-evident:  each new American consumes additional resources and has the potential to produce more offspring down the road.   Because of our high levels of consumption, the average long-term carbon impact of a child born in the U.S. and its descendants, is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh. So yes, women in Africa and India are having far more children than Americans on average – a major reason the global population reached 7 billion this fall. But a single child born in the U.S. will require more than 9 times the earth’s space to support it than one born in India.

So yeah, I want points.  But as the Global Footprint Network explains in their FAQs (apparently I’m not the only one thinking this), it measures the resources needed to support one person, not one person and her child.  The child would have its own footprint and including this footprint in with its parent’s would be double counting.   Technically, there’s a bit of apples and oranges in comparing the Global Footprint calculator with the OSU research:  the Global Footprint Network measures the amount of land and water needed to support an individual alive today, and the OSU researchers looked at long term carbon and greenhouse gas impact over generations.  So maybe future generations will award me points posthumously.  I guess I can wait.  I’m a delayed gratification kind of gal anyway.

The other truly annoying (and annoyingly true) feature of the footprint calculator is that almost half of my footprint was due to “services” that I can’t control.  These are the support systems determined nationally, not personally, including healthcare, the military, government services, real estate, legal services and more.   Because we all use and depend on them, the footprint calculator allocates an equal portion of these services to everyone in the country.  The only way to change that impact is collectively, through societal change.   That’s a bit of a challenge during a down economy when the conventional wisdom says that we need to consume more, not less.

None of this really answers the fundamental question raised by the 7 billion people milestone we recently reached:  Namely, is the problem the number of people or how much they consume?  The answer seems to be Yes.  Add to that what Mother Jones writer Julia Whitty calls the population paradox and we’re really in a pickle.  The paradox emerges from the overwhelming evidence that, across cultures, as women become more educated and have more opportunities, they have fewer children, helping to stabilize the global population.  They also invest in their earnings in their families and communities, reducing poverty and contributing to economic growth.  But economic growth leads to higher levels of consumption and the planet can’t absorb more consumption.  According to the Global Footprint Network, each year we’re already consuming a year and a half worth’s of the earth’s resources.   If current trends continue, we’ll need two earths by the 2030s.  Do the math – that can’t go on indefinitely.

Photo credit: eden pictures

Ultimately, it always seems to come back to our model of economic growth, which is kind of a Ponzi scheme when you think about it.   In short, we have to take in more and more of the earth’s resources to keep paying out dividends to more and more people just to keep the game going.  Some economists, such as Herman Daly at the University of Maryland advocate a steady state economy in which resource consumption and human population remain stable at physically sustainable levels instead of constantly growing as they are now.   Daly made his case with Tom Green early on in the financial crisis through a piece at adbusters.com – the same group that stimulated the Occupy Wall Street movement.   He argued that real wealth is physical:  It’s the plants, animals, and natural resources that feed, clothe, and shelter us, and these resources have physical limits on a finite planet.  Financial tools that burst the economic bubble, in contrast, are abstractions, based on unrealistic assumptions about unlimited resource consumption.  But most economists promote the mantra of continuous growth within the current system and the need to consume more and more to maintain a healthy economy.  Fundamental change at this level isn’t really on the radar screen, even among the Occupy Wall Street crowd.  And given the recent setbacks to even this movement, its ability to bring about any change is now in doubt.

Looks like we’ll have to wait for the next revolution to save the planet.  But at least the ecological footprint of a tent city is pretty low.

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