David M. Boje - October 3, 2002
Ecological Footprint is defined as "a measure of each individualís impact on the environment and sustainability by estimating the total resources used" (Jeffreys, 2001). It measures the "number of acres of land required to produce all that goes into bringing the conveniences of transportation, food, and utilities to people" (Jeffreys, 2001). A nation's Ecological Footprint "is the biologically productive area needed to produce the resources used and absorb the waste generated by that population" (Redefining Progress). Ecological Footprint represents the land area necessary to sustain current levels of resource consumption, support, and waste discharge by that population ( Wackernagel & Rees, 1996). An environment's carrying capacity is its maximum persistently supportable load (Catton 1986). The average American ecological footprint is about 30 acres (or hectares), and is larger than most other countries. The biologically productive space available worldwide in today's capitalism is an average of 5.6 acres per person (number of acres available divided by the population). In global hectares 5.6 acres is an average 2.3 hectares. Humans already exceed their biologically productive space on this planet under our current form of capitalism (this is 1999 data). According to Redefining Progress, currently there are only 1.9 global hectares (4.7 acres) of biologically productive space available per person on the Earth. In short, at our 1999 global rate of 2.3 hectares we exceed the space available of 1.9 hectares. Our world's ecological footprint under global Meat capitalism exceeds Mother Earth's ecological carrying capacity. We have overshot our global ecological capacity and the Earth's carrying capacity to support human and animal life is shrinking (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Overshoot (Source Wackernagel & Rees, 1996).
I assert that Vegetarian Capitalism has a much smaller ecological footprint whereby more people can live within a biologically productive space that the earth can sustain. The ecological footprint of Vegetarian Capitalism also renews the biosphere more rapidly. Our current ecological footprint deficit (1.9 available vs. 2.3 global hectares consumed) is exacerbated by the fact that our biosphere needs 14 months to renew what humanity consumes each year. Our current form of global capitalism and our individual life styles are depleting Mother Earth's natural capital assets for our future generations.
Our current capitalism is biologically unsustainable. Many countries have ecological footprints that are running a natural capital deficit. Here are some contrasting diets and ecological footprints.
|Vegan - smallest ecological footprint|
|Vegetarian - 1.4 acres more than a vegan|
|Ovo-lacto Vegetarian - Diet with many ovo-lacto products; Or, one meal with animal products -- both require an additional acre and a half|
|Meat eater - two or more meals a day include meat -- increases the acreage necessary to more than 7 acres above that of a vegan.|
In Meat Capitalism there is a growing deficit between land available and land necessary to sustain human and animal life. Each pound of meat from animal people eat, requires ten times that weight in grain. The land on which the grain is grown is counted as part of the ecological footprint; transportation and utilities consumed, plus the waste generated that land must absorb, also adds to that footprint.
You can go to Ecological Footprint Calculator to check the size of your own footprint (press here for Foot Print).
When you compare ecological footprints of countries, you get into issues of global racism. African countries, for example, make up some of the deficit of the higher consuming footprints. 80.3% of the world's population has an ecological footprint smaller than 4 hectares, and their total share of humanity's footprint is 38.3% (Stockholm Environmental Institute). The other 19.7% of the world's population occupies 61.7% of humanity's ecological footprint. The western world lives in an ecological footprint 20% larger than the available capacity of the biosphere, consuming more than its fair share.
Here is a list of countries with high and low ecological footprint deficits.
|Highest - United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Kuwait (with populations less than 5 million people).|
|U.S. average is 9.6 global hectares (24 acres) with 288.s million population.|
|U.K. average is 4.9 hectares/per capita|
|Germany's average is 4.7 global hectares (12 acres)|
|Lowest - 1.36 hectares for Central African Republic, Congo Republic, Papua New Guinea, and Gabon (produce more than they consume).|
Our choice of diet, transportation, resource and energy-saving consumption, and recycling/waste practices adds up to our individual ecological footprint. It also adds up to living according to our fair share. Vegetarian and energy conserving life styles make our capitalism more sustainable and less globally racist.
Currently Meat Capitalism dwarfs Vegetarian Capitalism in terms of unsustainable production, consumption, and distribution practices and waste emissions exceed biological productive space available. The natural capital assets of our planet's capacity to provide for current and future generations is declining. We are overshooting our global ecological capacity. The Earth can not afford our business as usual attitude. Our ecological footprint is larger than our available natural capacity, and that capacity is shrinking globally each year.
In 1997, the ecological footprint of the US was 10.3 hectares, which exceeded our available natural capacity of 6.7 hectares (Earth Council). The 1999 figures of Redefining Progress, reveal that the US has changed its diet to an ecological footprint of 9.6 hectares. The world has gone from 1997 figure of 2.8 hectares ecological footprint with a natural ecological capacity of 2.1 hectares to our 1999 lesser rate of 2.3 hectares, but our available natural capacity of 1.9 hectares is shrinking.
The problem with capitalism-as-usual is that its rapid economic resource use, consumption, and waste has accelerated beyond our natural resource carrying capacity. Our rapid economic growth, consumption, and waste exceeding our natural capacity by 20% is leading to the degradation of air, water, soil, forests, and our biological diversity.
I am hopeful we can develop smaller footprints on the planet.
References and Resources
Catton, W. (18 August, 1986). Carrying capacity and the limits to freedom. Paper prepared for Social Ecology Session 1, Xl World Congress of Sociology. New Delhi, India.
Earth Council - 1997 Ranking of Ecological impact of nations.
Jeffreys, Katharyn (2001). Whatís Your Ecological Footprint? Essential Vegetarianism. Volume 121, Number 7, February 27. Reprinted in The Tech http://www-tech.mit.edu/V121/N7/veggie7.7a.html
Redefining Progress Web Site http://www.rprogress.org
Rees, William E. (1996) Revisiting carrying capacity: area-based indicators of sustainability. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies Volume 17, Number 3, January.
Stockholm Environmental Institute
Wackernagel, Mathis & William Rees (1996).
New Society Publishers. P.O. Box 189 Gagriola Island, BC, VOR 1X0.