Our Feet Are Too Big

Last week, WWF released Living Planet Report 2006 to much fanfare. The press release was picked up by Reuters and promoted by Yahoo! prominently on its home page, with the first sentence indicating that humanity would require two Earths’ worth of resources annually by 2050. That sounds bad, but the lay-reader who scanned the article might be led to believe that we have some time to get our act together.

However, if you read past the first sentence of the Reuters article or dig into the report itself, you’ll see that WWF estimates that, today, our “Ecological Footprint” indicates that we already require about 25% more planet than we have, and we already have been in “ecological overshoot” for nearly 20 years. As WWF notes, “the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.” In the U.S., it’s even worse — each American is estimated to consume about twice as much resources as our equitable portion of the globe can sustainably support.

In other words, the ecological crisis is not in the mid-term or even the near-future — it’s here and now, and will only get worse. Our feet are too big, and they are only getting bigger.

The WWF report got me to thinking the question of how to measure the sustainability gap — obviously a very complex calculation, one subject to many assumptions and therefore open to controversy. Could it be that WWF is way off-base, that things really aren’t that bad?

Not according to Redefining Progress. According to their recent Ecological Footprint of Nations, their methodology estimates that “at present rates of consumption, we would need 1.39 Earths to insure that future generations are at least as well off as we are now.” For the U.S., their analysis is even more worrying than the dire-enough forecast of WWF, suggesting that the average American consumes more than 5 times their fair share of planetary capacity.

Disturbing stuff. It made me wonder: “how (un)sustainable is my lifestyle?” From Redefining Progress’ website, I employed their ecological footprint calculator, which estimated that my footprint was a little more than twice as big as the average American’s, implying that we would need more than 12 Earths if everyone on the planet lived like me.

Ouch. Now, this calculator was quite crude, involving a ton of assumptions, and I entered in conservatively pessimistic inputs. Nevertheless, I was really bummed. Am I really that bad?

Just to make sure, I tested myself via BP’s carbon footprint calculator. With several inputs based on my lifestyle, the (again, crude) calculator estimated that I was responsible for almost twice as much carbon emissions as the average American — which in itself is far higher than is sustainable. Pretty consistent, pretty depressing.

Damn, my feet are really big. How big are yours? Do you really want to know? Can you handle the (inconvenient) truth? I’m not sure that I can, yet.

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