October 29, 2008 | Graham

Putting your ecological footprint in it

According to the WWF Australians are consuming four times as much per capita as we should.
“So Australians are among the biggest consumers of the world’s resources.
“The sustainable average round the world is probably about two hectares per person. So we’re using about four times more resources than we should be.”
But when you look at the map in the Living Planet Report (p3), which is produced by WWF and is the basis for these comments you find that we have 50 to 100 percent more biocapacity than we need. Canada does even better 100 to 150 percent more. However the Mediterranean, India and China do much worse having less biocapacity than they need.
This suggests to me that rather than using too much biocapacity, we aren’t using enough. Someone has to take up the slack to feed these other countries.

Posted by Graham at 9:28 pm | Comments (8) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. Very True.No mentions that the rest of the world is breeding 10 times more than it should.
    Even poor countries must take responsibility at some stage,or suffer the demise of their own excesses.

    Comment by Arjay — October 29, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

  2. Not sure what excess biocapacity means. Last I heard our farmers are struggling to produce enough wheat to take advantage of the great prices for exporting it.
    Subsidies in the rich countries are one reason food availability doesn’t ‘balance out’. Another is the failure to account properly for the environmental deficit that is created, just as the economic debt wasn’t accounted for properly.
    Here’s a little balancing piece to Graham’s optimism:
    Scream Crash Boom 2 (’08)
    The Great Disruption

    Comment by Ronda — October 30, 2008 @ 12:15 am

  3. At the risk of confusing the matter even further I will attempt to clarify. Up until about 200 years ago economic theory was based on the fact that we needed to manage finite resources. The industrial revolution created the illusion of abundance and when the dire predictions of malthus failed to materialise it seemed as if the unlimited growth economics was vindicated.
    Even in the middle of the current crisis politicians and economists are still attempting to salvage the growth paradigm.
    Our living standard and that of the developed world is heavily dependent on the supply of non renewable resources. Our capacity to grow sufficient food is based on our ability to fertilise the land which in turn is based on our ability to use minerals.
    Simple maths can show the problem endemic with exponential growth.
    Our economic wealth is based on the exploitation of finite resources: minerals, fossil fuels – these are finite resources once used they cannot readily be re-used. ( Admittedly there are many resources that can be recycled but the 2nd law of thermodynamics still applies – and since we require to produce energy from fossil fuels coal, gas and oil to translate these materials so that they can be used we can argue that at that level at least we are dealing with finite resources.) Let us assume for a moment that the total supply of these finite resources in the world is X units. Let us further suppose that the world economy is growing at a rate of 3% .(This appears to be extremely modest, most economists seem to think that 3% is such a piffling amount that you may as well be standing still.) If the economy grows at 3% you are using up at least 3% of your finite resources. (I say at least because there are a range of other factors eg population growth, that can well increase that number, but I want to keep the maths simple.) If you are consuming resources at a rate of 3% per annum that means in 23.1 years you will have used up half all of the worlds resources. Given that our allotted life span is supposed to be three score and ten an economic growth rate of 3% will mean that in the lifetime of one person we will have exhausted all the worlds resources that sustain the economy.
    So how come we have not run out?
    Basically because the growth rate has not been globally uniform. At present the developed world is dependent on exploiting the resources in the under developed world to fuel our lifestyle.
    There have been a number of studies that argue we do not have to worry about global warming because we will have run out of resources by 2050.
    What we need to appreciate that we are far more vulnerable then the under developed world – very few people in cities have the capacity to feed themselves. In Australia the problem will simply be that if we do not have the fuel to drive our transport and farm machinery we will not only not be able to grow the food even if we grow the food we will not be able to get it to market.

    Comment by John Tons — October 30, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  4. John, Australian farmers have the resources and technology to produce their own biofuel – and some are already doing it on farm and driving their farm machinery with it.
    Graham is correct, we are a few people in a big country with a lot of resources including water. On a per capita basis we have more freshwater than almost anyone else coming in just after Russia and I think Canada. Yes, we have a huge freshwater resource in Northern Australia – we just choose not to exploit it.

    Comment by Jennifer — October 30, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  5. Jennifer, why stop there? Please tell everyone how the water in the North can be “exploited” to the rest of Australia or why planting crops for fuel is better than planting crops to feed people?

    Comment by Q&A — October 30, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  6. John, at the risk of being brutal, your maths stinks. You have to know a few more things like how many resources there are, how many we already use, and how resource intensive growth is before you can work out how long we have left!
    In 24 years or so the economy would double at those figures, but that’s different from saying you would have consumed half the resources available.
    But that aside, I don’t have a problem with the proposition that there are limits to growth and resources, which is why I think we ought to be figuring out how to reduce world population over the medium term. I’d have no problems with the whole of the world having population densities like Australia’s.
    But as it doesn’t I think there are some moral imperatives on us until it does, or at least has a density where it matches biocapacity, not exceeds it.

    Comment by Graham Young — October 30, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  7. Perhaps this article in a recenet edition of New Scientist may help those folk who see people like myself as chicken little.

    Comment by John Tons — October 30, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  8. Graham – of course you are right at least up to a point. Precisely because we do not know those two key variables we have no idea how long it will take to exhaust our resources. However, it does seem that people do not take into account the very nature of exponential growth.
    You are no doubt familiar with the wheat grain on the chess board example.
    Square 1 1 grain total 1
    Square 2 2 grains total 1 +2 =3
    Square 3 4 grains total 4+3 = 7
    Square 4 8 grains total 8 + 7 = 15
    and so on
    What few people seem to appreciate that at every stage of the iteration the number of grains on the square exceed the total number of grains that have been deposited on the previous squares.
    So it is with our consumption – the material that needs to be consumed every year to maintain a growth cycle is greater than all the material that has been consumed in all the years that have preceded it.
    Therefore to arrive at the conclusion that we need to develop an alternative paradigm seems common sense.
    Because we are missing the key variables that you mentioned we simply do not know how long we have left and therefore the degree of urgency we need to attach to developing that alternative paradigm. I simply think that prudence should dictate that we do not dally!

    Comment by John Tons — October 30, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

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