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Approaching the Limits to Growth: The Footprints of Consumption

Approaching the Limits to Growth: The Footprints of Consumption

A friend recently sent me the link to Paul Chefurka’s thoughtful website called Approaching the Limits to Growth. He writes long articles and I was pleased to see the small print at the bottom which said,

This article may be reproduced in whole or in part , in any manner and for any purpose whatsoever, with no restrictions..”

So I tried to copy one article completely, but I wasn’t able to cut and paste the illustrations. Still, here is the start to his thoughts about consumption, overpopulation, and the planet. There’s a link at the end of the excerpt right to his page.

A fairly common belief among western environmental activists is that “overpopulation is causing our ecological overshoot”. It’s a simple idea to present, as it just requires people to accept that more people cause more environmental damage.

Unfortunately this simple idea has a number of problems.  The main one is the old conundrum of who bears the responsibility for bringing the situation back into balance.  Should rich countries whose population growth is already slowing cut their consumption, or should poor countries that are not overconsuming cut their populations?

I used to believe that population was “the” ecological problem of the world.  I’ve recently changed my mind, as the result of a variety of investigations into the Ecological Footprint.

I’m currently using the EF as my standard for measuring relative amounts of ecological damage both nationally and globally.  According to The Footprint Network the world has about 1.8 Global hectares (Gha) of biocapacity per person, and we use, on average, over 2.6 Gha of biocapacity per person.  The difference is called the ecological debt.  It measures overshoot – the rate at which we are drawing down the earth’s natural resources to support our population in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.

I’m not totally satisfied with this method of calculating overshoot. I think it misses some important ecological factors such as ocean acidification and the loss of biodiversity through species extinctions.  It’s also a steady state model, and can’t take into account the effects of hitting tipping points in areas like ice loss or methane production from melting hydrates and permafrost.  Such effects would have to be incorporated into the model by estimating their impact on biocapacity, which is an error-prone exercise.  Still, it’s the best we have right now, and given the amount of work being done with Ecological Footprints it makes sense to examine our situation using this tool.

The first thing I discovered was that a country’s Ecological Footprint correlates much better to its GDP than it does to its population density:   Read the rest of the article and see the charts here.

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