We are currently sitting at a little over 7 billion humans on Earth. In 1959 we sat at about 3 billion. We have more than doubled our population in less than the lifespan of a baby boomer. While every other species on Earth has a definable range or habitat in which they can live, we humans continue to push boundaries. Our little blue dot won’t be able to sustain this kind of growth. It’s no wonder there are scientists looking for evidence life and water in our solar system.
But shouldn’t we take care of the home planet first? I am concerned about the environmental legacy we are leaving and the message we’re sending future generations. How do we as a society boil down an issue as complex and hairy as our human environmental impact so that each individual can understand her own impact and the choices available to her to reduce her impact? In the early 1990s, scientists at the University of British Columbia came up with an easy-to-use calculation that has been adapted and modified by many organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Sustainable Economy, and the Earth Day Network among others. The calculation looks at your food consumption habits, your travel habits, the type of home you live in and how it’s fueled, your consumer goods habits, and then – in most instances – factors in where you live and allocates you a portion of societal services such as government, military, infrastructure, etc. Once you’ve entered all of your inputs the calculator tallies up how many hectares of natural resources your way of life requires.
There are some challenges with the calculator. For instance, there is no differentiation between wild and farm-raised meat in your diet. If you eat more wild-sourced food (hunt, forage, fish, etc.), your footprint will be generally smaller. The specificity of questions and available answers from calculator to calculator leaves you with a potentially wide range of results. None of them allow for inputs that could benefit humanity in general, such as planting trees. It focuses solely on activities you can do to reduce your own footprint.
There are some great outcomes from running the calculation as well. The result is simple and easy to understand. You can see how environmentally sustainable the manner in which you live your life is. Your allocation of services is based on the country in which you live, not some worldwide average. A person in Morocco running the same calculation isn’t having to bear a part of my Canadian services. There are great suggestions for reducing your footprint ranging from easy and inexpensive (e.g. reducing meat consumption) to challenging and potentially expensive (e.g. replacing energy inefficient appliances).
Depending on which calculator I used I require anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hectares to support my lifestyle. The average Ontarian requires 3.6 hectares. If every person in the world lived the same way I do we would need 3.6 Planet Earths to support all of us. My biggest use of space relates to my food habits and my services allocation. Short of moving to a less-developed nation, I can’t do much about the services. I can make better choices about how and what I eat: less meat, fish and dairy, more locally sourced ingredients, and maybe figure out how to compost in an apartment building that doesn’t have a green bin yet.
We can all do our part. Little changes will eventually go a long way. Incorporate more plant-only meals into your diet. Turn off lights when you leave a room. Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. Research and consider purchasing carbon offsets from conservation organizations who will invest the money in appropriate projects. Selfishly I need our wild spaces cared for and protected and so I am working to reduce my own footprint. I am also building my life and business around the notion that everyone needs time in nature to reset themselves in a respectful, Leave-No-Trace manner.
Do you know what your ecological footprint is? Calculate it here and let me know in the comments if you are surprised by the result.