Making our mark

Forget the doomsday scenarios: the bigger the 'footprint' that humanity leaves upon the Earth, the better.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

What a piece of work is a man!

A new paper released by scientists claims that humanity’s ‘footprint’ (whatever that is) on the planet has increased by half in under 40 years. The paper, Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy, also suggests that by 1999 the human economy was absorbing 120 percent of the Earth’s productive capacity (whatever that means) (1).

Attempting to measure man’s ‘footprint’ upon the planet has become quite fashionable. This new study comes hot on the heels of a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in May, predicting that by 2032 more than 70 percent of the Earth’s land surface could be marked by the impact of cities, roads, mining and other human developments (2). An unusual ‘atlas’ produced in the USA over a year ago claimed that, already, man has ploughed over or concreted about a quarter of the world’s surface (3).

Amazing, isn’t it, to catalogue the extent to which humanity has been able to shape our world around our needs? Funnily enough, though, the results are never reported in this positive way. Instead, man is presented as a pestilence upon the Earth, bleeding our precious planet dry – and spawning headlines like ‘Mankind demands too much of Earth’ (4) and ‘Human use exhausts Earth’ (5). Rather than celebrating and building upon our achievements, we are supposed to hold back, slow down, and prostrate ourselves on the altar of the environment.

I am neither a scientist, nor a statistician; so I am not going to attempt to unravel the ways in which these doomsday scientists have arrived at their conclusions. It is hard enough even to separate metaphor from fact. But this recent study clearly follows a pattern. We are continually bombarded with worst-case projections about climate change and environmental degradation, based on complex modelling and contested data. And whatever one might say about the conclusions of such studies, their premise is just plain wrong.

Take this latest study, with its claim that humanity is using 120 percent of the capacity of the global biosphere. The BBC reports that this assessment is ‘based on several assumptions’, which are: ‘a) it is possible to keep track of most of the resources we use and the wastes we generate; b) most of these flows can be measured according to the biologically productive area needed to maintain them; c) the planet can be assessed in terms of “global hectares”, representing the average productive hectare on Earth for that particular year; d) the natural supply of ecological services can be measured in the same way’. The study’s authors claim that ‘it would require 1.2 Earths, or one Earth for 1.2 years, to regenerate what humanity used in 1999’ (6).

The notion that one can even talk about ‘average productive hectares’ – as though the Earth, itself, is productive – is highly questionable. Calculating the number of Earths needed for humanity to keep going is a media-friendly trick that actually makes no sense – there is, after all, only one Earth. But above all, such claims rest on the notion that both human development and the so-called natural world are fixed entities; that we can project into the future the technologies and demands that we use in the present.

The study’s authors apparently recognise that ‘The natural world itself changes year by year, as does the human demand on it’. This is a key point. Development has meant that there is no such thing as the natural world – man has created, shaped and changed the environment. And development in the future should mean that man demands more and different things of the environment, and finds new ways of fulfilling those demands.

But when development is talked about today, it is in terms of humanity constraining its demands of tomorrow in order to fit in with the imagined limits of the environment today. The framework of this discussion is ‘sustainable development’ – as if anybody wants unsustainable development, or as if there is even such a thing as unsustainable development. The orthodoxy of sustainable development is not about mankind boldly going into the future, but about an enfeebled species treading water before it drowns. And when studies such as this talk about the human demand on the natural world changing, they tend to mean that we should demand not better, but less.

It is striking that authors of new studies that warn about the imminent implosion of the Earth do not present themselves as doom-mongers. They tend to bend over backwards to present a positive argument that it doesn’t have to be like this. Professor Norman Myers, of Green College, Oxford, was one of the authors of Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy. ‘The overshoot will continue to increase if we do nothing, because of rising population and rising living standards’, he told the BBC. ‘But we can solve this without austerity or hair shirts, by using technology and avoiding waste.’ (7)

Sounds like a win-win option, doesn’t it? More efficient and environmentally friendly technology can prevent ruination of the planet, without sending us all back to the Stone Ages. In the prevailing orthodoxy of sustainable development, this view has been widely accepted as common sense. But it is a fantasy. Nature is not a separate thing, but a resource used by humanity for the benefit of people. In presenting humanity and nature as two distinct, separate and conflicting entities, the concept of sustainable development distorts the relationship between the two. And in calling upon humanity to act to save the environment, the environment is necessarily prioritised over people.

Professor Myers can talk about using new technology to accommodate to the limits of the environment ‘without austerity or hair shirts’ because, in the advanced industrialised world, that may well be true. Even before protecting the environment was seen as a goal of development in its own right, the by-product of industrial advance has been cleaner air, better human health, the discovery of new resources when the old ones run out – all of which have gone hand in hand with raised living standards.

The ideology of sustainable development eschews the notion that economic development and raised living standards bring broader benefits. Instead, it assumes that benefits to humanity must be weighed up against their potential impact upon the environment. What this means in practice is very little development. Because of the concern with mankind’s mystical ‘footprint’, large sections of the world are prevented from making their mark on life.

At a recent conference organised by the education charity Worldwrite, an east London student talked of her childhood in Rwanda, where people have to cut down trees to light the fires to cook their food: ‘And what are they supposed to do? Save the trees and starve to death?’ A young Ghanaian imagined what people in her village might do with the time saved by a washing machine, a microwave, a proper road. Is she thinking about how best to reconcile the demands of the environment with the needs of her family? No – she’s wondering how her family can get more out of the environment to enable them to fulfil their potential – or even to survive.

These people have austerity and hair shirts; and they want to be rid of them as quickly as possible. Economic development has so far failed to achieve this goal. But sustainable development, which puts preserving the environment above even the ambition to raise human living standards significantly, seems even less likely to improve people’s lives.

Obsessing about the environment might make European and American scientists happier with the ‘footprints’ that they leave on the Earth, but it will stop Africa and the rest of the developing world in its tracks. And for what?

Read on:


‘This sanctuary is a prison’, by Kirk Leech

(1) Human use exhausts Earth, BBC News, 24 June 2002

(2) Planet at the crossroads, BBC News, 22 May 2002

(3) ‘Atlas shows man’s “footprint” on the planet’, BBC News, 16 February 2001

(4) The Times (London), 25 June 2002

(5) Human use exhausts Earth , BBC News, 24 June 2002

(6) Human use exhausts Earth , BBC News, 24 June 2002

(7) Human use exhausts Earth , BBC News, 24 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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