Comparative Ecological Footprints

Ecological footprint analysis (EFA) provides another way to understand the problem of material throughputs in the modern world. The ecological footprint of a specified population may be defined as the area of productive land and water ecosystems required, on a continuous basis, to produce the resources that the population consumes and to assimilate its wastes, wherever on Earth the relevant land/water is located. Because of trade and natural flows, portions of any modern nation's eco-footprint are scattered all over the world.

Since eco-footprint estimates are based on the resource use and waste generation associated with final consumption by study populations, they provide a way to compare the ecological impacts of differing lifestyles. Recent national eco-footprint estimates underscore the fact that high-income countries—including the most technologically efficient economies examined in the WRI study—are the most material-intensive and polluting economies on Earth on a per capita basis. The bar graph shows the per capita ecological footprints (EFs) of a selection of countries across the income spectrum, from among the richest to the poorest on Earth. To facilitate comparison, the EFs are reported in hectares at world average productivity (data drawn from WWF 2002).

Note the enormous disparity between high-income "northern" countries and the poorer developing countries of the south. North Americans and Europeans typically consume ten to twenty or more times as much per capita of various resources as do the impoverished citizens of the poorest countries such as the people of Bangladesh and Sierra Leone; the wealthy therefore impose a correspondingly massive pollution load on the world's ecosystems.

Because of the finite volume of "ecological space" on Earth, it would not be possible to raise the entire world population to North American or western European material standards on a sustainable basis using prevailing technologies. The total eco-footprints of many densely populated high-income countries are already considerably larger than their domestic territories. Indeed, the world average eco-footprint is about 2.3 ha while there are fewer than 2 ha of productive land and water on Earth. Although the basic economic needs of a billion people have not yet been met, the world population has already overshot global carrying capacity. Humans are living and growing, in part, by depleting the biophysical resource base of the planet.

There can be little doubt that political factors help to maintain the disparity between high-income and developing countries. For example, the structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as a condition for development loans force borrowing countries to lower their standards of living and to export more minerals, timber, and food both to pay down their loans and to purchase imports from high-income countries. However, in the increasingly open global marketplace, developing countries must compete with each other and with first world subsidies for first world markets. This forces down the prices for developing countries' commodity exports in relation to the prices of the manufactured goods and services they must import. According to economist J.W. Smith, current terms of trade create a relative price difference that is even more effective than colonialism in appropriating the natural resources and in exploiting the cheap labor of less-developed countries. Remarkably, while developed countries claim to be financing the developing countries, the poor countries are actually financing the rich through low pay for equally productive labor, investment in commodity production for the wealthy world, and other dimensions of unequal trade.

Most significantly, many observe that the terms of trade and structural adjustments forced on third world countries are quite opposite to the policies under which the wealthy nations developed. This suggests that the power brokers of the developed countries know exactly what they are doing. Critics such as Smith claim that their grand strategy is to impose unequal trades on the world so as to lay claim to the natural wealth and labor of weaker nations. Intentional or not, the strategy is clearly effective: In the 1960s only $3 flowed north for every dollar flowing south; by the late 1990s the ratio was seven to one.

It is worth emphasizing here the extent to which wealthy industrialized countries are dependent on cheap commodities, particularly low-cost fossil fuel, to maintain their consumer economies. This reality is becoming an increasing strain on geopolitical stability. For example, both our highly productive intensive agriculture and almost all forms of transportation are directly or indirectly petroleum based. This dependence has, in turn, led to instances of aggression to control oil-producing countries thus assuring ready access to critical fuel supplies. (To some oil is certainly one of the motivating factors implicated in the 2003 war on Iraq.) It also encourages injustice, violations of human rights, and ecological degradation in order to extract oil as cheaply as possible. A clear example of this is the alleged genocide and ecocide committed by Royal Dutch Shell Oil in Ogoniland, Nigeria, a case that has been widely reported and is on trial in U.S. courts under the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA).

Although such gross human rights violations are particularly egregious, even normal day-to-day business activities that promote consumerism and the ever-expanding eco-footprints of wealthy consumers can be interpreted as a form of "institutionalized violence" if we continue these practices in full knowledge of the distant social and ecological consequences.

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