Commentary on "Our Ecological Footprint"

                    So far this summer, I have had time to read several interesting books and reports. One of the
            books I decided to read, was Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth.
            The following notes were made after reading this book. 
David Orton, July 1999

Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth
Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees  published by New Society Publishers, 1996

            The EF is a helpful concept useful for teaching, that shows how humans are over exploiting Nature and
        depleting on a continuous basis what this book refers to as "nature's capital." The lifestyle of the affluent
        (20% of the world's population) cannot be achieved by the rest of the world otherwise three such planets
        would be needed. Hence the emphasis on economic growth and increasing consumerism is a recipe for
        certain ecological and social disaster. The following quotes from this book give a flavour of the position
        being advanced:

            If we are to live sustainably, we must ensure that we use the essential products and processes of nature
        no more quickly than they can be renewed, and that we discharge wastes no more quickly than they can
        be absorbed.

            Starting from the Brundtland definition, we argue that, conceptually, sustainability is a simple concept:
        it means living in material comfort and peacefully with each other within the means of nature.

            Ecological Footprint is the land (and water) area that would be required to support a defined human
        population and material standard indefinitely.
Glossary, p.158

            The present Ecological Footprint of a typical North American (4-5 ha) represents three times his/her
        fair share of the Earth's bounty. Indeed, if everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian or
        American, we would need at least three such planets to live sustainably.

            The authors make the point that the limits-to-growth debate of the 70's was about "non-renewable resources",
        whereas they focus on declining "renewable natural capital" like forests, fish, clean water and soil. (See p.63) I
        guess here in Canada we could say that industrial forestry, using the authors language, makes a renewable
        "resource" non-renewable. Many ecocentrists try to avoid using the term "resource" because it implies a
        human-centered universe, that Nature is a "resource" for human/corporate use, and the whole taken-for-granted
        world view of resourcism.

            Wackernagel and Rees compare the average consumption between the US, Canada, India and the rest of the
        world in 1991. (See p.85) Carbon dioxide emissions in tonnes per year were 15.2 (Canada), 19.5 (USA),
        India (0.81) and the World 4.2. The same range of discrepancies is shown for purchasing power, vehicles
        per 100 persons, paper consumption, fossil energy use, and fresh water withdrawal. The interesting point is
        made that Australia and Canada, among "developed" countries, consume "less than their natural income
        domestically" yet it is the export trade which is depleting overall the "natural capital stocks." (See p.97) The
        authors are also aware of class factors within a country as influencing the Ecological Footprint. For
        Canada a preliminary assessment suggests the bottom 20 percent of the population have a Footprint of less
        than three hectares, while the richest 20 percent "consume the ecological goods and services of over 12
        hectares per capita."

        Some criticisms

            Basically the Ecological Footprint is a human-centered concept which essentially concerns human needs.
        It does not incorporate an ecocentric Earth-centered perspective  - that there has to be a fundamental change
        in consciousness for humans in how they relate to the natural world - although the authors by various
        comments show that they are well aware of this. The needs of other species and their habitats are really just
        footnotes in this text. I believe a basic philosophical position for the authors is a) that to change the existing
        situation- which they well describe- then human self-interest has to be appealed to; and b) the current material
        standard of living is taken as a given in the industrialized countries. I do not share either of these two views.
        Both authors are working within the existing system and not on the outside of it.

            Although there is a critical examination of the concept of "sustainable development", in the end this
        ecologically perspective which relies on continuing economic growth and increasing consumerism, is worked
        with. The authors avoid redistribution of wealth from the rich and say that more "development" is needed by
        those on the economic bottom.

            The book seems to accept world trade and globalization as a given and the bioregional discussion in the book
        comes through as an afterthought.

            In spite of the above criticisms, I believe this book can be very useful for radical ecocentric activists and
        supporters of left biocentrism who are trying to raise in a public way fundamental new thinking. Where I live
        we have just had a provincial election where the size of the economic deficit was quite a major issue,
        "mortgaging the future" etc. One could use such an opening to bring up the growing ecological deficit, the
        fundamental concern of this book, and how the present consumerist lifestyle and call for more economic
        growth is unsustainable.

            However, the basic intellectual poverty of this book from an ecocentric perspective, is perhaps shown in the
        following quotation:
                    Growth is a pressing moral imperative for those whose needs are not being
            met, and industrialized countries have not yet found ways to maintain their
            standard of living, without continued economic growth. One hopeful strategy
            to deal with this dilemma involves massive improvements in the efficiency
            of economic activity so that growth in consumption of goods and services is
            "decoupled" from growth in the use of energy and material. In theory, this
            should permit an increase in consumption to be accompanied by a decrease in
            resource use. In fact, this "dematerialization" of economic goods and
            services must proceed faster than economic growth to produce the necessary
            reduction in humanity's total load on the ecosphere. The political
            attractiveness of this approach is self-evident - it enables the rich to
            maintain their high material standards while freeing up the ecological
            space needed for the poor to increase theirs
. p.144

            The above is quite distinct from the position of left biocentrism, which for example in the
        Left Biocentrism Primer notes
            "The perspective of the late German Green philosopher Rudolf Bahro is accepted that, for
        world-wide sustainability, industrialized countries need to reduce their impact upon the Earth to
        about one tenth of what it is at the present time."


            I care for the phenomenon of living more than I care for the contorted belief system of my culture.
            I care for wildlife preservation more than I care for its opposite - the technomachine and that which
            serves it. I care most deeply of all about the failure of wildlife preservation in my lifetime.

                                                    - John Livingston, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, 1981, p.116

                    Published in the on-line magazine fo the New Brunswick Environmental Network Elements, September 1999.

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