Wackernagel and the ecological footprint

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Mathis Wackernagel and the ecological footprint

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Today, 23 September 2008, is the Earth Overshoot Day. The day on which humanity has used all the resources that nature can generate in a year according to the Global Footprint Network founded by Mathis Wackernagel. This means that we need about 1.4 times the Earth to meet our needs. We are eating the planet. The blog has interviewed Wackernagel, the inventor of the concept of ecological footprint, a statistical index that brings together the consumption of natural resources with the Earth's capacity to regenerate them.

"Italian monks introduced the idea of book keeping for money. The ecological footprint is something similar for resources: we think like farmers about the world, rather than the money we think how much area there is that is productive for raising land, crop land, etc. That is what we have available, our bio capacity, and then what we use for our food, fibres, energy consumption, etc., is our ecological footprint. If we look at all the resources we consume from 1st January to 23rd September, the Overshoot Day, and compare them to the entire year production we see that by 23rd September we have used all the resources that the Earth can regenerate in the entire year. When I was born in 1962, humanity used about half the planet regenerative capacity. Over that time span we've been able, trough technological wizardry, to squeeze more stuff out of the planet. Some areas of the world have experienced the collapse because they are too poor to import extra resources after they run out of their own assets. Switzerland, for example, being quite wealthy uses three times the resources that its own ecosystem can regenerate. Since it has quite significant financial capacity, it buys the extra resources. The latest estimates for Italy are for 2003: 4.2 hectares of ecologically productive space compared to 1.8 available in the world, a bit less than three times what is available in the world. The bio capacity of Italy is one hectare per person, slightly more than half the world average. It takes so 4 Italies to support the consumption of Italians. Other cases are Haiti and Darfur, where they are much more limited by their own resources availability, and if they run out of resources, which they are, they aren't able to gain extra resources and so are confronted with severe resource shortages. There are beautiful historical examples, beautiful because they are so far away. When the Roman Empire was at its peak, a million people lived in Rome. Once the Empire collapsed, and Rome wasn't able to get the resources from far way places. The city within a very short period of time shrunked to about 50,000 people, all that Rome was able to support from it surrounding ecosystem, not being able to ship resources from far away any more. This is the best historical example. There are three areas on which we must focus: the first is that, like we do with finances, we need to have a good understanding of what we spend and how much we use. Book keeping doesn't avoid bankruptcy, but it helps to understand where we are. The second are is what we call slow things first. If you look at infrastructure put in place today or in the past, ... infrastructure lasts for decades. Think about how your cities are built and how long they will determine how we will live in these cities, for example the insulation of a building will determine for decades how much the house will consume. The third area is to focus our innovation in the right direction. Innovation is the biggest tool we have to solve issues, but if it is not just focused on the right problems, the problems will not solved. Being clear about recognizing what we are up against will allow us to invest in the right direction. I can tell you what energy we will be using in a 100 year, that is pretty obvious. Right now we are using in the order of 15 terawatt of energy to power the human economy. The Sun provides 175,000 terawatt to our planet. For sure 100 years from now we will be using predominately the Sun, as we did in the past, during the first 1,500,000 years of human existence. I hope that we start to recognize that the waste is not the end of the cycle, but the beginning. Our waste could become a significant resource for our economy: the worst thing we can do with the waste is mix the various materials of waste, therefore downgrading its usefulliness. By separating out all the various waste streams, they are much more valuable. Paper from recycled paper, metal from metal, etcetera. The organic food can become soil again through composting, without contaminating the rest of the waste streams. A part of the waste might have a high energy value and could be burned very cleanly. Waste could become a huge opportunity rather the problem it is today." M. Wackernagel

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Maybe the cooling in the global economic growth is not bad news for Planet Earth after all.
Maybe a downturn could represent a chance to take a breath and try to change things, which admittedly would have been more difficult to undertake if the bulls had kept on charging. Environmentalism has been in the past misconceived for a strategy that could make us noble but poorer, that would hinder our search for wealth. And although it is today apparent that this planet is an asset worth including in our portfolio, still developed countries are reluctant, a genetic imperfection of ours, to risk destabilizing their established way of living for the sake of Mother Nature. It may seem less of an problematical exercise now that the establishment has sadly lost half of its market value?

So here is the R-word we should be focussing on. Not the one that is pronounced with ominous tone and loaded up with negative significance. Not Recession, no.
We feel the current situation gives us a rare chance to Reconsider. More precisely understand how we got to this point and do what it takes to secure a sustainable growth to ourselves (where Nature counts as one of us). R stands today for Responsible use of the natural assets base. It suggests that we may well Rethink the meter that gauges our moods and successes as human beings: that old fool GDP that frustratingly enough accounts for energy efficiency measures as a detractor to the bottom line. Without even mentioning Respect for basic human and ethical values. Realize that globalization means that it doesn't matter where on earth water tables are running out, as it doesn’t where a mortgage bubble bursts. And finally means Recognizing that we have all that it takes to address the situation: the urge, the will, the knowledge and technology (including water and wind turbines which have been with us for some millennia).

Confidence in the cyclicality of the economy is somewhat a relief to those who look ahead. But one thing is clear: the next upturn, whenever will be the case, cannot be started and fuelled in the same way as we did in the last decades. Planet Earth would simply not be able to afford it. This time we’d better Restart in a sustainable way.

Posted by: aldo beolchini | November 10, 2008 01:32 AM


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