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How my life helps kill Earth
by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

If all six billion people in the world lived the way I take for granted, we would need the resources of 3.7 Earths to support them. This is assuming we appropriate all biologically productive space to meet the demands of just one species, namely us humans.

Such was the uncomfortable outcome of calculating my ecological footprint at the Redefining Progress website. The site was set up by LEAD International, a non-profit organisation devoted to promoting sustainable development and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The ecological footprint is essentially a measure of the space required to provide the resources to support my standard of living. It takes account of everything from transport habits to diet to household energy use. My footprint was 8.1 hectares. The amount of space available per capita is 2.2 hectares and shrinking because of overpopulation, degradation and pollution.

But my opening scenario is not realistic. The other five million or so species with whom we share the planet give us clean air, clean water, fertile soil and food courtesy of their complex interactions and genetic diversity. These species need space to get on with the job.

As it stands, a measly 7 per cent of Earth is at present set aside and more or less protected for all those other creatures. That means we would actually need 4.1 Earths for all people to adopt my standard of living.

The landmark 1987 report of the World Commission on Environmental Development, Our Common Future (better known as the Bruntlandt report) suggested the international community should aim to protect a minimum 12 per cent of the planet for other species. It is not nearly enough for them to survive and, worse, it bumps up the footprint to 4.8 Earths.

I enjoy what I consider a modest but typical Western life. I probably fly more often than average, but I live in a smaller than average house, rarely drive alone and frequently use public transport. My footprint was calculated on the bluntest of indicators; a more accurate and personalised result could be obtained if I was prepared to keep detailed records for 30 days.

But give or take a planet, I suspect the end result would be much the same: I, we - the Western world - are clearly living way beyond our ecological means. It is a sobering thought that the world's richest 20 per cent consume 80 per cent of the world's natural resources. That means even if we could somehow wish away the impoverished multitudes or deny them the opportunities of industrialisation, the global environment would not be especially better off.

The situation is created by what Michael Jacobs described in his 1991 book The Green Economy as the invisible elbow of market forces. None of us set out to degrade the environment, but we do nonetheless through the collective impact of our individual activities.

``Sometimes there is deliberate and intended destruction, the foreseen cost of ruthless consumption,'' Jacobs writes. ``But more usually, degradation occurs by mistake, the unwitting result of other, smaller decisions ... Small, individual decisions add up inexorably to large, collective ones, and no one is counting. Market forces are at work.

' Most of the time we don't even think about it. Light at the flick of a switch in my home, for instance, is all I see of a grossly polluting and inefficient coal-fired electricity system that at best loses 65 per cent of its potential energy in generation and another 7 per cent in its far-flung transmission and distribution. Solar panels on my roof would be a direct, non-polluting source of household energy but I alone would bear the costs of purchase and installation.

If I eat strawberries out of season, they must be supplied from somewhere far distant. That means huge energy costs in transport and storage and increased waste from spoilage. Further, the price does not reflect the environmental costs of industrial agriculture: salinity, biodiversity collapse, exhausted and eroded soils, polluted water and dying rivers.

The environment similarly subsidises the global spread of Western fast-food diets. All those hamburgers from McDonald's, Hungry Jack's and the like have to come from somewhere. It is one reason landholders in Queensland and Brazil are mowing down native forests to run a few extra cattle on marginal grazing land.

If ecological footprints were confined to national borders, Australia would be in good shape. According to Earth Council's international ranking, the average Australian takes up nine hectares, but the country could support footprints of 14 hectares. Plenty of room to move except that no nation exists in isolation. Countries draw down on the reserves of others to obtain resources they do not have. It is what world trade is all about.

Australia, for example, has a population of 19 million, but grows food for 50 million. This earns valuable export income, but feeding the rest of the world is costing us dearly in land and water degradation.

Japan, by comparison, is overpopulated and resource-poor. It has room for individual footprints of 0.9 hectares but its 126 million citizens average footprints of 4.3 hectares each. Their Western standard of living is possible because they are highly industrialised and can afford to import resources.

Most of the developing world, quite reasonably, wants more than the status quo. They want Nikes, mobile phones and cars as well as enough to eat and decent shelter. The question is how can it be done without dooming us all. Obviously one of the first steps will be reducing material consumption in the West. It will be a case of making less go further.

The next time I jump in the car because I can't be bothered walking five minutes to the supermarket, the question is whether my lifetime of minor conveniences is worth the price of planets we don't have to spare.

LINKS Redefining Progress website:

Claire's footprint would be substantially reduced if she:

  • became a vegan
  • sold the family car
  • stopped flying
  • ate only locally produced and in-season food
  • fully insulated the house (walls, floor and ceiling)
  • installed solar panels on the roof
  • used only low-energy lightbulbs and appliances.


The Age Publication


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