Windows on the world


Ecological Footprints
(First published at Summer 2006)

Christian Aid predicted recently that by the end of the 21st century almost 2 million people in Africa would die as a result of climate change.  If Hurricane Katrina is anything to go by there will be many deaths on other continents, the direct consequence of our greed for energy and land, and yet in environmental terms global warming is just the tip of the iceberg.   

In her dream Mary Stevenson saw footprints in the sands of time that represented her life.  In places there were two sets of prints, but when life got really tough there was only one set.  Her explanation was that the Lord had been her travelling companion, and He had carried her through the difficult times.  We all leave footprints, but whether or not we receive any help we must take care lest we tread heavily and break fragile sea-shells, or unthinkingly crush small delicate creatures.

Some people go through life heedless of their effect on those they encounter, heedless of their impact on the environment, but increasingly we are being made aware of the consequences of our actions; increasingly, we are losing the feeble excuse that we meant no harm.  Humankind is living beyond the means of the planet.  We (that is, you and I) are causing harm.  We are robbing our neighbours of land that could sustain them, and we are robbing our own children and grandchildren of the climate they will need to survive.  We consume and discard extravagantly, whilst using up fossil fuels and creating global warming that will make life as we know it impossible to sustain. 

How much land have you commandeered?
It is not just about energy and water, although those two precious commodities neatly divide the world between affluence and poverty.  Your ecological footprint can be measured in terms of how much land you have commandeered to provide for your comfortable lifestyle.  For example, if the biologically productive land of the world is divided equally between its human inhabitants each person would be entitled to 1.5 hectares.  As some food and energy is harvested from water, the total land/sea mass available might be increased to 2 hectares.  You, dear reader, have 2 hectares on which to live, work, travel, grow your food, raise your animals, provide your energy and shelter, and make all the luxuries that you regard as necessities.  But before you mark out your territory there is one more adjustment to make: if some space is to be left for the 30 million species with which we share this planet, then a more realistic figure would be 1.7 hectares per person.  And lest you should think we can manage without trees, birds and butterflies, rabbits and rats, then think again.  If you wipe out all wild flora and fauna in order to claim your extra 0.3 hectare you would be signing your own death warrant.

Oh, and by the way, donít expect to hang on to 1.7 hectares.  In 30 years time, when the world population is expected to reach 10 billion, your personal share will shrink to 1 hectare. 

Living on 1.7 hectares
This might be an unfamiliar concept, so one question needs to be addressed: can a human being live on 1.7 hectares?  Fortunately, many people do so.  The 25 million people who live in Peru manage on 1.6 hectares per person; 1.25 billion people in China manage on 1.2 hectares; and 1 billion people in India only need 0.8 hectares.  This is just as well, because Turkey averages 2.1 hectares; the United Kingdom 5.2 hectares; and the USA 10.3 hectares.  In other words, people in the more developed countries are living on a huge land overdraft, which is only made possible because people in the developing countries are not using as much land as they might.  This status quo is likely to change as developing nations aspire to some of the luxuries they have seen others enjoying, which the developed nations are only too eager to sell.  The earthís land mass is a finite resource, and so if the people in China and India start using their 1.7 hectares per person, a lot of people elsewhere are going to have to change their lifestyle.

Of course, these statistics are generalisations, and not everyone in the US has a footprint of 10.3 hectares.  Unfortunately, however, the law of averages means that the millions of people living in near poverty, with smaller footprints, are balanced by the even large footprints of the middle-classes, the affluent and the rich.   Living by the law of the jungle, whereby the strong and powerful survive at the expense of the weak, that is what we might expect, but itís a sad thought that civilisation has advanced no further than the jungle.

How big is your footprint?
No doubt you are thinking: ďThat doesnít apply to me. I switch off the TV when Iím not watching; I recycle my trash; I donít waste water.Ē  Perhaps you do all these things.  Perhaps you could do even more.  To get closer to measuring your own personal footprint try visiting: or, if you have a few minutes, a better measure can be found at:

These are only approximations, but at least they raise awareness of the kind of things in your lifestyle that add up to a big footprint.  Then the choice is yours.  Continue to trample underfoot your weak neighbours and future generations, or tread more lightly on the earth.  W. B. Yeats might have been speaking for your unborn grandchildren when he said:
"I have spread my dreams under your feet
tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.Ē



© Harvey Tordoff
May 2006