According to conventional wisdom, we are voraciously using the world’s resources and living way beyond the Earth’s means. This narrative of decline and pessimism underlies much of today’s environmental discourse, and is often formulated in a simple fashion: By 2030, we will need two planets to sustain us, owing to higher living standards and population growth. If everyone managed to live at US living standards today, we would need almost five planets. But this received wisdom is fundamentally wrong.
Environmental campaigners use the so-called “ecological footprint” — how much area each one of us requires from the planet — to make their point. We obviously use cropland, grazing land, forests and fishing grounds to produce our food, fiber and timber, and we need space for our houses, roads and cities. Moreover, we require areas to absorb the waste emitted by our energy use. Translating all these demands into a common unit of physical area gives us an opportunity to compare it with Earth’s productive area — and thus to get a sense of how sustainable we are.
For more than a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and several other conservation organizations have performed complicated calculations to determine individual “footprints” on the planet. Their numbers show that each American uses 9.4 hectares of the globe, each European 4.7 hectares, and those in low-income countries just one hectare. Adding it all up, we collectively use 17.5 billion hectares.
Unfortunately, there are only 13.4 billion hectares available. So the WWF points out that we are already living beyond the Earth’s means, using around 30 percent too much.
And it will get worse. They tell us that the recent financial crisis “pales in comparison to the looming ecological credit crunch,” which could presage “a large-scale ecosystem collapse.”
This message is being seared into the public consciousness. The British newspaper the Observer used the headline “Wanted: New Earth by 2050”; according to the BBC, Earth is “on course for eco-crunch”; and the Washington Post was horrified by the four extra planets needed, and urged us to use more canvas shopping bags and energy-saving light bulbs.
The message has been received loud and clear. We are using up too much of the planet’s area. But wait a minute. How can we do that? How can we actually use more area than there is on Earth?
Obviously, any measure that tries to aggregate many different aspects of human behavior will have to simplify the inputs, and the ecological footprint is no different. For example, when we talk about US lifestyles needing five planets, we assume that technology is frozen, whereas it is likely that worldwide land-use productivity will increase dramatically. Likewise, organic farming actually leaves a larger footprint than its conventional cousin.
Yet, despite such shortcomings, it is clear that areas we use for roads cannot be used for growing food, and that areas we use to build our houses take away from forests. This part of the ecological footprint is a convenient measure of our literal footprint on Earth. Here, we live far inside the available area, using some 60 percent of the world’s available space, and this proportion is likely to drop, because the rate at which the Earth’s population is increasing is now slowing, while technological progress continues. So no ecological collapse here.