1.4 earths: sustainability and overshoot, or 6 earths and the moon for dessert

I like to think of myself as a good person of the Boy Scout variety–trustworthy, brave, kind, helpful, etc.–except without the homophobia. You probably like to think the same (of yourself, not me). Well, according to the Global Footprint Network’s “Footprint Calculator” it would take six earths if all 6.7 billion of us lived a wicked, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent lifestyle such as mine, or yours for that matter. Turns out my footprint falls within the average for an American. And, according to the Footprint Network, because of selfish people such as you and I, it takes 1.4 earths to support our sorry butts. In other words, they say you and I are taking more than our fair share through overharvesting of pretty much everything, and depleting the earth’s future cupboard as a result: we’re overdrawing the earth’s bank account and living on credit; we can do it for a short time but over the long-run it bankrupts the earth.

Shoot, maybe I’m not a good person. Already, I can hear the Footprint police shaking their organically carbon-neutral fingers at me, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Why can’t you be like the North Korean peasants? They live on just five per cent as much as you by eating only dried yak dung. Now turn around, put that bag of chips back and turn off the air conditioner, television, computer, washing machine, answering machine, lights, refrigerator, freezer, hair dryer, water heater, radio, MP3 player, everything that requires energy. And, while you’re at it…don’t breathe so much!” Sigh…oops, I put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, I guess I’d better go buy some carbon offsets; but if I buy offsets that means turning on something and that means using energy. Sigh…

Like the Global Footprint Network, Bill McKibben pessimistically sees limitations, “(W)e’re going to have to figure out how to stop focusing on our economies of growth, and start thinking about survival. That means embracing local, smaller-scale ways of living, like it or not.”

Others optimistically see limitless opportunities for humans and our globe. Optimism is a tough sell. Molly Ivins said, “It’s hard to argue against cynics–they always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side,” but she never met Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist. He has evidence that says we need to keep going the way we’ve been going if we want to not simply survive but thrive. While McKibben tells us to slam on the brakes to keep the world from careening off the cliff; Ridley, with an Indiana Jones grins, says “Trust me. Floor the accelerator.”

In the foreword of his book, “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” Ridley writes, “I find that my disagreement is mostly with reactionaries of all political colours: blue ones who dislike cultural change, red ones who dislike economic change and green ones who dislike technological change…(H)uman progress has, on balance, been a good thing…(The world) is richer, healthier, and kinder too, as much because of commerce as despite it.”

You see, the more we trade goods and services, the more we trade ideas as well. Those ideas he says, “have sex.” Like DNA recombining to make unique individuals, bits of ideas cross-fertilize with others to make better ways of doing things. “In a nutshell,” Ridley says, “the most sustainable thing we can do, and the best for the planet, is to accelerate technological change and economic growth.”

While cynics and pessimists may sound smarter, in the past they have been wrong about the future. Despite their warning Jeremiads of deprivation and doom, we live longer and better, and on far less land than ever before.

I’m feeling better about myself already.

Post to Twitter