Commentaire sur l’empreinte écologique

David Orton nous fait un résumé intéressant et utile du livre "Our Ecological Footprint".

Certains points clés du livre sont mentionnés, ainsi que sa propre évaluation critique.


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(photo:Our Ecological Footprint)


Commentary on the
Ecological Footprint

   David Orton
   Green Web
   July 1999


i.gif (173 bytes)ntroduction: I belong to an internet discussion group which is called "left bio". It has been running for over two years now and functions as a forum for people interested in deep ecology and social justice.  Not long ago there was some discussion of the book, 
Our Ecological Footprint
. Not having read this book, but having heard references to the footprint concept, I decided to read it. What follows is a summary of some of the key ideas and my own critical evaluation of them. I think the analysis behind the ecological footprint can be useful to environmental activists in providing some intellectual ammunition to oppose those obsessive promoters of continual economic growth and consumerism. The authors of 
Our Ecological Footprint
show that this is simply unsustainable and that the present North American consumer lifestyle, as model for the rest of the world's population, would require three planets. The implications of this for how we should go about organizing ourselves as environmentalists in Canada are profound.


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(photo: Our Ecological Footprint)


Commentary on the Ecological Footprint

The Ecological Footprint is a helpful concept, useful for teaching, that shows how humans are over exploiting Nature and depleting on a continuous basis what this book refers to as "nature's capital." The lifestyle of the affluent (20% of the world's population) cannot be achieved by the rest of the world; otherwise three such planets would be needed. Hence, the emphasis on economic growth and increasing consumerism is a recipe for certain ecological and social disaster.

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(photo: Our Ecological Footprint)

The following quotes from this book give a flavour of the position being advanced: "If we are to live sustainably, we must ensure that we use the essential products and processes of nature no more quickly than they can be renewed, and that we discharge wastes no more quickly than they can be absorbed." p.7

"Starting from the Brundtland definition, we argue that, conceptually, sustainability is a simple concept: it means living in material comfort and peacefully with each other within the means of nature." p.32

"Ecological Footprint is the land (and water) area that would be required to support a defined human population and material standard indefinitely." Glossary, p.158

"The present Ecological Footprint of a typical North American (4-5 ha) represents three times his/her fair share of the Earth's bounty. Indeed, if everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian or American, we would need at least three such planets to live sustainably." p.13

The authors make the point that the "limits-to-growth" debate of the 70's was about "non-renewable resources", whereas they focus on declining "renewable natural capital" like forests, fish, clean water and soil (See p.63). I guess here in Canada we could say that industrial forestry, using the authors language, makes a renewable "resource" non-renewable. Many ecocentrists try to avoid using the term "resource" because it implies a human-centered universe, that Nature is a "resource" for human/corporate use, and the whole taken-for-granted world view of resourcism.

Wackernagel and Rees compare the average consumption between the US, Canada, India and the rest of the world in 1991 (See p.85). Carbon dioxide emissions in tonnes per year were 15.2 (Canada), 19.5 (USA), India (0.81) and the World 4.2. The same range of discrepancies is shown for purchasing power, vehicles per 100 persons, paper consumption, fossil energy use, and fresh water withdrawal. The interesting point is made that Australia and Canada, among "developed" countries, consume "less than their natural income domestically", yet it is the export trade which is depleting overall the "natural capital stocks" (See p.97). The authors are also aware of class factors within a country as influencing the Ecological Footprint. For Canada a preliminary assessment suggests the bottom 20 percent of the population have a Footprint of less than three hectares, while the richest 20 percent "consume the ecological goods and services of over 12 hectares per capita" (See p.102).

Some criticisms:

Basically the Ecological Footprint is a human-centered concept which essentially concerns human needs. It does not incorporate an ecocentric Earth-centered perspective - that there has to be a fundamental change in consciousness for humans in how they relate to the natural world - although the authors by various comments show that they are well aware of this. The needs of other species and their habitats are really just footnotes in this text. I believe a basic philosophical position for the authors is a) that to change the existing situation- which they well describe- then human self-interest has to be appealed to; and b) the current material standard of living is taken as a given in the industrialized countries. I do not share either of these two views. Both authors are working within the existing system and not on the outside of it.

Although there is a critical examination of the concept of "sustainable development", in the end this ecological perspective which relies on continuing economic growth and increasing consumerism, is worked with. The authors avoid redistribution of wealth from the rich and say that more "development" is needed by those on the economic bottom.

The book seems to accept world trade and globalization as a given and the bioregional discussion in the book comes through as an afterthought.

In spite of the above criticisms, I believe this book can be very useful for radical ecocentric activists and supporters of left biocentrism who are trying to raise in a public way fundamental new thinking. Where I live we have just had a provincial election where the size of the economic deficit was quite a major issue, "mortgaging the future" etc. One could use such an opening to bring up the growing ecological deficit, the fundamental concern of this book, and how the present consumer lifestyle and call for more economic growth is unsustainable.

However, the basic intellectual poverty of this book from an ecocentric perspective, is perhaps shown in the following quotation:

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"Growth is a pressing moral imperative for those whose needs are not being met, and industrialized countries have not yet found ways to maintain their standard of living, without continued economic growth. One hopeful strategy to deal with this dilemma involves massive improvements in the efficiency of economic activity so that growth in consumption of goods and services is "decoupled" from growth in the use of energy and material. In theory, this should permit an increase in consumption to be accompanied by a decrease in resource use. In fact, this "dematerialization" of economic goods and services must proceed faster than economic growth to produce the necessary reduction in humanity's total load on the ecosphere. The political attractiveness of this approach is self-evident - it enables the rich to maintain their high material standards while freeing up the ecological space needed for the poor to increase theirs." p.144

The above is quite distinct from the position of left biocentrism, which, for example, in the Left Biocentrism Primer, notes:  "The perspective of the late German Green philosopher Rudolf Bahro is accepted that, for world-wide sustainability, industrialized countries need to reduce their impact upon the Earth to about one tenth of what it is at the present time."