Part 28: Ecological footprint
By Frosty Wooldridge
Dr. Alan Kuper, a man I admire and respect, illustrates our
accelerating dilemma with metaphors that make sense. He reports from his web site a book by Mike
Lafferty “Too Many People, Not Enough Planet”: Lafferty said, “In the days of
sailing ships, sailors used to leave goats on islands as they passed to ensure
fresh meat on return trips. It worked too well. The animals bred faster than
the sailors could eat them, and from the Channel Islands off
Biologists explain the “lesson of the goats” as it applies to humans and point out how our "island earth" suffers.
“Two weeks ago, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change released
its report blaming humans for increased temperatures, melting glaciers and rising seas,” Lafferty reported. “Too many people burn too many fossil fuels at 82 million barrels daily.”
That doesn’t account for millions of tons of coal, natural gas and wood being burned every day by 6.6 billion humans.
"With global warming, we’ve been able to create this
problem in the first place because we’ve had virtually free energy in the form
of fossil fuels," said
Lafferty reported, “Climate change, Waite and others say, is a sign that we are exceeding the number of people Earth can sustain. Every year, at least 77 million humans are born in excess of those who die. That’s 1 billion people every 11 years. Some, however, argue that we are adept at adapting, and point to
increased agricultural production and medical advances that fend off disease.”
Right now, Earth’s carrying capacity is thought to be somewhere in the range of four billion to five billion people. We sport 6.6 billion today and grow by 240,000 every 24 hours. See www.populationmedia.org to see the population ticker.
“In biology, the carrying capacity usually refers to the
number of animals a given area can support with adequate food, shelter and
territory or the space to reproduce,” Lafferty reported. “
"When you get to the nitty-gritty of the term, some animals are more equal than others. Some countries are a lot more equal than others," Pimm said. "You might have 50 billion, but the quality of life might not be terribly pleasing. Rabbits are the same way. The key word is support."
“The United States possesses resources to sustain less than half of its current population of 300 million, according to ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who first called attention to potential population problems in 1968 with his book, “The Population Bomb,” Lafferty reported. “Waite and other ecologists increasingly think of the idea of carrying capacity in terms of an ecological "footprint," the amount of land on Earth that it takes to support a group of people.”
Americans, who make up five percent of the world’s population, use 25 percent of its resources and cast a large footprint.
Lafferty reported, “If all 6 billion people were to share the world’s resources equally, Americans would have to reduce consumption by 80 percent for each of
us to have a footprint of about 4.4 acres.”
“Waite rides a bicycle most days. However, Waite’s footprint grows when he arrives on campus or has to rent a car to attend a meeting out of town,” Lafferty reported.
"The moment I show up at work, I suddenly violate the fair Earth share and I become unsustainable. Carrying capacity and footprint are tied to the global economy, which has quadrupled since the world’s population doubled,” said Waite.
“That leads to a fear that slowing population growth might
not ultimately curb greenhouse gas production if more people achieve Western lifestyles,”
said Barry Rabe, a
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, said the sustainability question is a loaded one, “"People ask me how many people the Earth can sustain. I usually respond that it depends on whether you want to live like an Indian or an American."
“For example, farmers worldwide grow about two billion tons of grain every year. Each American consumes an average of 1,760 pounds annually, mainly because of the grains used to feed farm animals. If everyone on the planet consumed that much grain,” Brown said. “Earth would support about 2.5 billion people.
Population, water and food lock horns. Growing one ton of
grain requires 1,000 tons of water. Water
shortages already occur in Africa, Asia and the
“Alternative energy, touted as a possible solution to
burning fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases, also adds a factor to the
food equation,”Lafferty reported. “Soybeans are increasingly in demand for
biodiesel. And ethanol production now vies with food for corn. Brown estimates that by 2008, half of the
"Seventy percent of all corn imports in the world come
Waite said this competition for energy and food will change the landscape, “If we were to replace our reliance on fossil fuels and instead grow fuel plants that would require setting aside lots of land to produce ethanol. We don’t have enough land worldwide to meet those demands. Demand for food, fuel and materials already consumes more trees and crops than are being grown worldwide.”
Waite compares the issue to a bank account. “Humans are already drawing on capital rather than interest, and once that is exhausted, they will find Mother Nature reluctant to make a loan.”
For more information concerning our future, contact Dr. Alan Kuper at firstname.lastname@example.org. As you surmise through this series on the next added 100 million Americans, we’re crafting a mighty deep chasm for our children. Check out www.uscongress-enviroscore.org for a greater understanding of what we face.
As you can see from the first part of this series, I showed
you what I’ve seen in the