Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth by Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees. New Society Publishers.
What impact do you have on the world you live in? Considered another way, how much land and water are needed to produce the resources you consume while absorbing the waste you leave behind?
Two members of the Task Force on Planning Healthy and Sustainable Communities at the University of British Columbia in Canada make it easy to visualize answers to such questions in their slim but comprehensive analysis of the resources required to sustain our households, communities, regions and nations. Brimming with useful charts and thought-provoking illustrations, Our Ecological Footprint makes a convincing case that our “growing demands on nature endanger the planet's ability to support life on a much more fundamental level.”
In one of the best definitions of sustainability I've seen, the authors argue we should shift our emphasis from “managing resources” to “managing ourselves ” so that we learn to live as part of nature, not as partakers of it. The point: to shrink the size of what the authors call our “ecological footprint,” not expand it.
Right now, claim Wackernagel and Rees, the present ecological footprint of a typical North American is comparable to a spread of more than three city blocks. That may not seem like much at first blush. But if everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian or American, we would need at least three planets like ours in order to live without bringing our natural systems to the point of collapse. At least while we're confined to this solar system, expanding beyond our own orbit to solve our resource woes doesn't seem to hold much promise.
What does offer hope are the solutions Our Ecological Footprint lays out: using energy more efficiently, understanding that we can use the essential products and processes of nature no more quickly than they can be renewed, and that we can discharge wastes no more quickly than they can be absorbed.
Our Ecological Footprint is not about “how bad things are,” write the authors. Rather, it addresses humanity's continuing dependence on nature and what we can do to secure Earth's capacity to support a humane existence for all in the future. After all, note the authors, “The human enterprise cannot be separated from the natural world even in our minds because there is no such separation in nature.”
Ecological footprint analysis should help us to choose wisely, which is preferable to having nature impose a choice of her own.
To calculate your own environmental footprint, use this environmental footprint calculator.