poloticsLiving Beyond our Planet’s Means

According to Global Footprint Network, humans reached a tipping point today. As the world condemns North Korea’s nuclear test, and the Foley Scandal takes a close second in media attention, our species officially began to consume more that our home planet can provide. “In other words, [an Indepentent UK article states] assuming that the world has a certain quantity of natural resources that can sustainably be used up each year, today is the date at which this annual capacity is reached.”

A few weeks ago, I set up the Wheel of Fortune at the annual Iowa Environmental Council conference. Their theme was “How Big is our Splash?” and the keynote speaker was Dr. William Rees. Dr. Rees teaches college in Vancouver, BC, and wrote a book in 1996 titled Our Ecological Footprint. According to Dr. Rees, an ecological footprint “is a measure of the ‘load’ imposed by a given population on nature, or the land necessary to sustain resource consumption and absorb wastes.” His PowerPoint presentation ran deep with his mathematical formula’s results that showed how humans are outgrowing our planet.

He began with discussing how humanity lives in self delusion, creating a global myth that humans have “unlimited economic expansion via technological prowess.” He also brought up the Malthusian concept of carrying capacity, and how our population would far exceed Earth’s limited resources. Dr. Rees displayed a graph showing human population growth for the past 1,000 years. Up until the Industrial Revolution, the line stayed straight at a sustainable level. In the 1800s to now, a huge spike goes up the graph, and estimates show that it hasn’t stopped rising. If we followed the graph data back to 20,000 years or more, it would still maintain a sustainable level amount. Now things have changed, and a paradigm shift is taking place in our lifetimes.

Dr. Rees then showed the formula he developed that would show a region’s ecological footprint. At the current rate of consumption, the US would need 9.5 earths to sustain its needs. India, by contrast, would only need one earth to sustain it’s population. And how many earths are the average for the whole planet? Two.

After a break, Dr. Rees took us to an online site that had an ecological footprint calculator. Today, I took the quiz twice, entering data that reflects how I’m living on the road with this job, and then entering how I lived in San Francisco before I took this job.

The results were startling. If I worked this job all year, at the same pace that I work now, I would need 38 acres (with the US average being 8.6 planets) to sustain that lifestyle. When I was in San Francisco, eating local produce, taking public transportation, riding a bike, and not owning a car, I would need only 8 acres and 1.9 planets to maintain that lifestyle. In comparison, according to this site, the US average ecological footprint is a whopping 24 acres, while worldwide “there exist 4.5 biologically productive acres per person.” So even if I live my “radical” lifestyle in SF, I am still an above-average consumer, eating our planet along with the rest.
Radical Changes

Dr. Rees’ solution began with “creating a new myth that will change reality.” I’m all for that, and have had issues over the past five months with those who don’t even make small radical changes in their lifestyles. According to Dr. Rees, if we stopped eating industrialized meat, stopped driving, and stopped flying in jets, then our footprint would dramatically decrease. But, even at the Iowa Environmental Council conference, our food was served on styrofoam plates and cups, with plastic untensils, and meat was on the menu. As I pieced together a sandwich filled with garnish, three attendees joked about how they were still going to eat the cold-cuts for lunch, and “still have a large footprint.” I asked if the soup was veggie, and the caterer gave me a veggie sandwich wrap and veggie soup, both of which weren’t main entrees. They were in the kitchen, available for anyone who requested it.

US citizens have a long way to go if we want to decrease that huge 24 acre footprint. Most of the left-leaning people I’ve met on the road still drive cars, eat meat (even fast food), drink soda, smoke cigarettes, and don’t think twice about not recycling. They don’t eat healthy, don’t exercise, and, though they all believe in global warming, are still buying into the old myth that all is well and sustainable on earth.

My major frustration, and source of sadness, here on the road comes from all these smart, concerned people not seeing the new story and making simple, radical changes in their lives. By believing a different story that guides my values and principals, for example, the simple act of not using paper towels makes a huge difference! Every tank of gas I buy, every junk-food wrapper I pull out of the trash to recycle, every bag full of garbage I see at events (At the Tom Harkin Steak Fry, we created mounds of useless, styrofoam waste… after eating mounds of cheap beef and chicken.), every joke about leaving a small footprint “later” makes me realize how out of balance our culture is. When I think of civilization now, I only see scarecrow people, using a metaphor from the band XTC, going about their banal existence. Again, I scream in my mind, “what the hell are you doing!?” and realize that no one would listen to me if I really screamed. They aren’t ready for to buy into a new myth.

Again, cracks do break through this Middle American reality. Yesterday, I set the games up at a vegetarian group gathering. I told several of them how good it was to see folks who don’t eat meat, or fast food, or junk food. Still, we all ate appetizers on styrofoam plates, with plastic forks, and drank vegan wine with plastic cups. I opted to not use the fork and recycled the plastic cup.

And I will also try my best to keep the values I have, and make the myth that I believe in the predominant one that we all will have to face sooner or later. The idea of unlimited economic expansion is outdated, and one of slowing down to live sustainably will have to be the main story that humans adhere to. We’re in the middle of that paradigm shift, and now the human race is living on this planet via credit alone. How we’ll pay that debt back will be the driving issue for our generation, and those that follow.

We begin to write the story now, it was begun decades ago, and will end happily ever after if we re-write our brains to wake up from our consumptive stupor.