How big is your footprint?

Posted on 20 October 2000
Gland, Switzerland: Since the term sustainable development was introduced in 1980, with the publication of the World Conservation Strategy by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the conservation organization WWF, and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) the debate over it has spread to many quarters, including business and industry. Today, few people would question the need for sustainable development in order to conserve the earth's natural resources. Yet while much time has been wasted in discussing the definition and practical meaning of sustainable development, the consumption of natural resources has accelerated and many of the assumptions supporting the concept have been undermined.

It was thought, for instance, that there would be national and international bodies that would have the power to choose between the options available for economic and social development. Governments, it was believed, would have the capacity to establish deliberate policies, and that business, industry and civil society would become partners on a declared development path.

However, it is becoming clear that one of the effects of globalization is to limit the powers of governments and their social partners to deal with the problems arising from an international tide of pressure on their natural resources. Sovereignty over such resources is called into question by expanding market demand for timber, beef or palm oil from converted forests; or for cotton, grain, fruit and flowers produced by depleting freshwater ecosystems; or for fish harvested by over-capitalized and heavily subsidized fleets. In these circumstances, what hope is there for national commitment to sustainable development?

I cannot help feeling that different means are required to concentrate the minds of our existing and emerging consumer societies on the fundamental problems of sustainability, and to relate them to the manner in which those societies actually consume.

Let me give you an example. WWF's recently published Living Planet Report reveals that:

  • If every human alive today consumed as much as the average inhabitant of the USA, Germany, or France (or, for that matter, of the UK, Switzerland, Australia, etc.), we would need at least another two earths.
  • The area required to produce the natural resources consumed and assimilate the waste generated by mankind has doubled since 1961.
  • The area needed to produce the natural resources and assimilate the waste generated by the average North American is almost twice the area required by the average Western European, and some five times greater than required by the average Asian, Africa and Latin American.
  • The area required to produce the natural resources consumed and assimilate the waste produced by mankind in 1996 was 40 per cent larger than the area actually available - leading to a serious depletion of nature's 'capital stock'.
  • The natural wealth of the earth's forests, freshwater ecosystems and oceans and coasts declined by 33 per cent between 1970 and 1999.

These sorts of statistics are related to what has become known as the 'ecological footprint' by which the impact of human beings on the planet can be measured. To put it in more technical terms, the footprint aggregates human impact on the biosphere in one number - the bio-productive space occupied exclusively by a particular human activity. The figure is arrived at by means of a formula involving all the resources a nation consumes and the waste it generates, together with a classified assessment of various types of consumption.

The results of such calculations are instructive. The American footprint, to which I refer in the list above, equates to 12.2 hectares of space with average productive capacity, including a sea area of one tenth of a hectare. In other words, to live as he or she does now, an American requires a biologically productive area equivalent in size to 30 soccer pitches.

In the world as a whole, the footprint of humanity works out at 2.85 hectares, which turns out to be greater than the planet's productive capacity. If all the earth's biologically productive space was divided equally among the world's human population, there would be about 2.2 hectares available per person. And that figure, it is worth remembering, takes no account of the needs of the 10 million or more other species that also inhabit the earth.

Looked at from this perspective, the idea of sustainability acquires new meaning and new urgency. Quite simply, the figures demonstrate that the human species is consuming more natural capital than the earth can replace, a fact that adds a chilling dimension to our future. If we do not reduce our consumption and exploit natural resources more sustainably, they will simply run out in the end.

So instead of paying lip-service to sustainable development, let us make people aware of the impact each one of us has on the limited capacity available - the size of our footprint. Then, perhaps, we shall finally see precisely what must be done to protect the precious environment on which our survival depends.

(900 words)