How Lightly Do You Tread Upon This Earth?

Linda P. Beckerman, Ph.D -

The American folktale characters Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stomped mightily upon this Earth. One version of the story says, "The tracks they made gallivanting around Minnesota filled up and made the 10,000 lakes." Another version says about Babe that "His tracks were so far apart that it was impossible to follow him and so deep that a man falling into one could only be hauled out with difficulty and a long rope".

You think the ecological impact of your footprints is nothing like that? Maybe you are dead wrong. Mathis Wackernagel & William Rees have defined your ecological footprint as the amount of land you need to support your lifestyle. This means the land that produces all the things you need to survive and thrive and the land used to dispose of all the garbage you leave behind.

Let's take a look at how much land per person that is. Here are a few of the latest Ecological Footprint calculations, as published in 1999 in with an update in the Living Planet Report 2002

These report, by country, the average number of acres a person consumes continually throughout their entire lifetime:

  • Americans - 24
  • Canadians - 17
  • Italians - 7
  • Indonesians - 3
  • Japanese - 12
  • Italians - 7
  • Australians - 19
  • Japanese - 12
  • Chinese - 4
  • Norwegians - 20
  • Columbians - 3
So what does all this mean? If you're an American you probably don't see what the big deal is. "After all", you might say, "It's a big planet and there is lots of land. We're just more "civilized" than those Indonesians". But there is just so much biologically usable land available per person on this planet, an average of approximately 4.5 acres, and it would be nice to leave something over for antelopes, bunnies and bears.

"So what if I am continually using up 24 acres worth of goody production and trash dumping?" you might retort. "I pay for it, don't I"? Assuming you don't live self reliantly on that 24 acres, you do pay for it. But at what price? Let's take just two examples of the price we pay. Let's choose water as our resource and just the usage of it for irrigation. And just one result of the way we dispose of our garbage.

Right now we drain so much water out of the Colorado River it usually runs dry before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. This is because more and more people are taking water out of it for household use and for irrigation purposes. When dry land has been under-irrigated because there isn't enough water to go around, salts accumulate in the soil. After awhile no crops can be grown there. That is why the Romans scattered salt on the fields of their enemies. And now salt is accumulating in the land being irrigated by the Colorado River.

So as the population increases, the amount of land available for your 24 acre chunk is decreasing. "Aw Heck", you say, "We'll just desalinate the oceans and then we'll have lots of good clean water for more irrigation. After all, didn't the Israelis make the desert bloom? And they use lots of desalinated ocean water over there."

We've already started doing that in Tampa, Florida, where they are dumping the salt back in the bay. A trivial amount they say. Couldn't hurt a thing. This is just what they used to say about garbage. Back before landfills we dumped garbage into the ocean like it was just a drop in the bucket and everyone said it couldn't possibly matter because the ocean was so large.

But now chemicals, including heavy metals including mercury, flow down river from industrial plants and farms into the ocean. Fishing ships, Cargo ships, and Cruise ships dump garbage over board, even though they aren't supposed to. Garbage left on the beach washes out to sea. Today in the United States we treat our raw sewage, but many cities have "accidents" which dump raw sewage and merely pay the fines when they are caught. We've all heard of beaches closed because of too much sewage effluent or because medical waste has washed ashore. And not every country has stopped dumping their garbage in the ocean instead of using landfills.

In 1991 Tim Benton, an American scientist visited Ducie Atoll in the South Pacific, which is so remote it is 3000 miles from the nearest continent. He found over 950 pieces of trash in a 1.5 mile stretch of beach. As listed by Ocean Planet , a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, and the Global Marine Litter Information Gateway, this is what he found:

14 Crates (bread, bottle), 71 Plastic bottles (drinks, toiletries), 171 Glass bottles (from 15 countries), 18 Jars, 268 Broken plastic pieces, 74 Bottle tops, 29 Pieces of plastic pipe, 44 Pieces of rope, 25 Shoes, 6 Fluorescent tubes, 6 Light bulbs 7 Aerosol cans, 7 Food/drink cans, 2 Pop tops, 4 Gasoline cans, 2 Gloves (1 pair), 1 Canned meat (leaking but intact) 3 Cigarette lighters (not working), 2 Doll's heads (1 male, 1 female), 8 Copper sheeting from shipwrecks, 1Truck tire ,1 Plastic ninepin, 1 Glue syringe, 1 Small gas cylinder, 1 Construction worker's hat ,1 Plastic coat hanger, 1 Toy soldier ,1 Half a toy airplane, 1 Tea strainer, 1 Football (punctured), 1 Car floormat, and 1 Asthma inhaler.

All that garbage floating around in the ocean finds its way into the food chain. Just recently we've been informed by national news broadcasts that pregnant women are being advised against eating too much of certain varieties of fish because of the levels of mercury they contain.

"So what the heck", you say. "We're American technology geniuses. We'll just find a technological solution to all those 24 acre chunks I need to support me." But all these 24 acre chunks are not here in the United States. They are scattered all over the world.

For example, we send bolts of cloth overseas to China to be turned into clothing and sent back to us at cheaper prices than we can produce locally. This requires that they use their land to build large factories and buy equipment so they can perform work in those factories. Construction of that equipment utilizes resources, as does actually running it. And they are also generating trash to do this for us. So we have transferred a portion of our 24 acre chunk over to China.

Also, since we pay them to do these things for us at rates higher than they can normally make, they are working their way up the consumerism food chain. So their footprint is increasing. In fact, with rare exceptions, everyone's footprint is increasing.

So the big question is: When do we run out of usable planet? And the answer is that we already are. If you want to assess your own footprint, then take The Ecological Footprint Quiz. I took this simple quiz, and it turned out that if everyone on the planet lives the way I do, we would need 7.5 planets.

"Oh, but there's lots of empty space out there", everyone says. I suppose they mean that it is not yet covered with concrete. But have no fear; here in the U.S. we are plunging headlong into paving over as much land as we possibly can. Because we keep having children. And they all grow up and need houses to live in. And roads to drive on. And cars to drive on the roads so they can get to work. And more businesses to provide them that work. And all that tears yet another 24 acre chunk per person out of our planet.

If you are a typical American family, you have two children, and as a family are using up 96 acres. You may think that the baby uses fewer resources than an adult, but every year they outgrow their clothes, want more plastic toys, and spend hours in front of that electric powered TV or computer game escape mechanism. Eventually that child will turn into a all consuming adult flying to Hawaii on a vacation.

If it's 96 acres for a two child family, what about the Joneses down the street with five children? That's a 168 acre chunk of planet needed to support their family. If we add in the rest of the people living in your neighborhood, and then the rest of the town or city, that's a lot of high acre chunks. So guess what? We're not too far off of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox's 10,000 lake beds. And for just your two child family alone, remember that all those 96 acre chunks are divided up and spread about the globe. So just like Babe the Blue Ox your tracks are so far apart it is impossible to follow them and some of them are so deep that a man falling into one could only be hauled out with a long rope.

For more information on Ecological Footprints, visit Redefining Progress.

Copyright December 2002 Linda Beckerman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.