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OUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT - Reducing Human Impact on the Earth

by Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees, illustrated by Phil Testemale

The New Catalyst Bioregional Series

Review by MC Davies

The predominant understanding of the word "global" in my adult life has been formed by that famous picture of earth photographed during one of the early space voyages. Our planet appears to be a shining blue-green orb glowing gently against the great darkness of the universe, something so vast that we simply call it "space." That beautiful image exists in my mind's eye like some half-remembered dream, a vision floating at the edge of my consciousness - the sweetness of it, the mystery of it about to evaporate, fade out of sight in the morning mists.

Like most others of my generation that image was introduced into my life at about the same time I became aware that, as human beings our life-support system is in big trouble. I know by both reason and intuition that our lifeboat is tiny, infinitely complex and threatened. And I have found it difficult to translate that marvellous living image of Planet Earth from shining imagination to the "cold" reality of money, greed, need and politics.

People use a lot of words to talk about our dicey situation and frankly, a lot of those words (and the people who use them) scare me - a lot. The words confuse me, the scale of the problem seems beyond me and debates and arguments confuse me unto paralysis.

So I was quite glad to welcome into my life and onto my bookshelf "Our Ecological Footprint." The book gave me a pretty clear wake up call. But it also provided me with some practical tools for thinking about, and measuring where we are at in this process of getting to sustainability. I was encouraged to work with others in my community to act, to seek solutions and make them happen.

In its first section the book offers substantial help by looking coherently at definitions of the many words and terms, and arguments that are thrown around in the debate about sustainability.

The middle section develops a specific set of assumptions and analytical tools which can be used to calculate the impact of human needs upon the capacity of the earth to provide - both globally and locally. Although pretty dense to read, I was encouraged to discover that there are tools that sharpen our sight and it is possible to look right into the mirror and see the patterns of consumption - personal, communal and global that are shooting us past our limits.

The last section of the book deals with strategies for developing solutions in community planning and policy development. The authors are convinced that by facing our problems and working together that we can reduce consumption, live within our means, at the same time improve our quality of life.

"On a finite planet, at human carrying capacity, a society driven mainly by selfish individualism has all the potential for sustainability of a collection of angry scorpions in a bottle."

"The accelerating resource consumption that has supported the rapid economic growth and the rising material standards of industrialized countries in recent decades has degraded the forests, soil, water, air, and biological diversity of the planet. As the world becomes ecologically overloaded, conventional economic development actually becomes self-destructive and impoverishing."

"The Ecological Footprint is a measure of the 'load' imposed by a given population on nature. It represents the land area necessary to sustain current levels of resource consumption and waste discharge by that population."

"Pushing the supposed "moral superiority" of sustain- ability will not make it happen. In today's fragmented and competitive world, playing on people's moral duty and feelings of guilt produces only resentment, not long-lasting transformation. Sustainability will remain a hard sell until we can show that people have more to gain that to lose by changing their ways."

"If we do not wake up to the slow but steady deterioration of the planet, we will ultimately becomes victims of the "tyranny of now." The incremental expansion of the human enterprise, of manufactured capital infrastructure catering mainly to today's affluent, overwhelms others' efforts to live within the means of nature. We hope that the graphic clarity of the Ecological Footprint, by showing all at one how much ecosphere we have already traded off, may wake the majority from the consumption induced lethargy of our material age."

"If everybody lived like today's North Americans, it would take at least two additional planets Earths to produce the resources, absorb the wastes, and otherwise maintain life-support. Unfortunately, good planets are hard to find . . ."

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