Fats Waller’s 1939 hit was way before my time – but I do remember the title, as well as one or two lines:

From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet
From there down there’s just too much feet

And that pretty much sums up the ecological footprint for those of us living in Ontario. Although I’m not an economist, I know from reading the paper that the big concern for countries everywhere is economic growth – the more, the better.  So it puzzles me how we can support this goal when environmental groups everywhere are telling us that the rate of global consumption is rapidly outstripping the natural resources available to meet our increasing demands and destroying our natural habitat.  From a report produced by the Global Footprint Network for the province of Ontario:

According to the 2008 National Footprint Accounts, the global Ecological Footprint in 2005 was 17.4 billion global hectares (gha) or about 2.7 global hectares per person. In comparison, the world’s biocapacity (or total supply of bioproductive land) was only 13.4 billion gha, or 2.1 gha per person. This situation, in which the global Ecological Footprint exceeds available biocapacity, is termed ecological overshoot. If humanity continues to consume at the level we see today, by 2050 we will be consuming the resource equivalent of two planets each year. Consuming the equivalent of more than one planet’s biocapacity means we are depleting our renewable resource stocks, increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, or some combination of the two. Such trends cannot continue without adverse consequences for ecosystems and biodiversity.

On a per person basis, Ontario residents are among the global populations placing the highest demands on the planet’s resources. In 2005, the average Ecological Footprint in Ontario was 8.4 global hectares per person; only three of 150 countries with reported Ecological Footprint data have a higher average per-person Ecological Footprint.  (4 June 2010)

So what do we do?  Are the battle lines drawn between economic growth and environmental protection, without any chance of reconciling the two camps?  Should we just engage in a little cognitive dissonance and pretend we can have both without making any changes?  Should we just worry about ourselves today, and expect our children and grandchildren to cope with the consequences tomorrow?

Perhaps the solution is to redefine what is really important to us as individuals.  In a book I read recently, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson, the author questions what prosperity means for us.  At the end of the day, we all want good health; fulfilling relationships; sufficient clean water, sanitation, food, clothing, and shelter; a good education; a satisfying job; a safe and caring community; and opportunities for recreation.

Dr. Jackson begins by explaining the definition of GDP.  This stands for gross domestic product, which is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders, usually calculated on an annual basis. It includes all of private and public consumption, government outlays, investments and exports less imports that occur within a defined territory.

A rising GDP is supposed to be equivalent to increasing prosperity.  But it isn’t necessarily the case.  If your community has lots of prisons, fires, vandalism, murders, high traffic fatalities, extreme weather events requiring extensive repairs and reconstruction (minus the loss of productivity as businesses are closed pending the repairs), frequent lawsuits, and many citizens requiring hospitalization, all this economic activity results in a high GDP, but you’d have to agree it’s not what we’d consider “prosperity”.

If, on the other hand, a community has a high rate of volunteerism, clean air, lakes and rivers, vast forests, friendly neighbours, and a healthy populace, this will not be reflected in the GDP.  So why are we using the GDP as a measure of prosperity?

Until we redefine prosperity to include the things we value most, our increasing ecological footprint resulting from this drive for growth at all costs will accelerate climate change, deplete our natural resources, lead to loss of habitat and biodiversity, and worse.

What can be done to change the current situation?  A number of international experts like Dr. Jackson, who teaches sustainable development at the University of Surrey, have formed committees to investigate the relationship between sustainability and economic growth, and challenge governments to change their approach to develop a genuinely sustainable society.  It is indeed possible to have a healthy, productive community that lives within its means.  For this to happen, there needs to be a real commitment at the national and international levels to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, protect the natural environment, control resource extraction, restore damaged habitat, promote cooperation, and share resources equitably.

On a personal level, we need to focus on what constitutes genuine prosperity for ourselves and live our lives accordingly.  It’s difficult to resist the onslaught of advertising that manipulates us into consuming more than we need, to the point where many people end up heavily in debt and stressed out trying to stay afloat financially.  Keep in mind that many organizations exist that are working to show alternatives to over-consumerism, by supporting  the natural environment, social justice, and sustainable living, and they always welcome new members.  Remember, too, that we need to participate actively in the political processes of our community by reminding our representatives that all planning and decision-making must be done with a view to sustainability.  Let’s do our best to keep our ecological footprint small!

Future Green Talk columns will address the topic of sustainability in more practical terms.  Any comments or suggestions from Millstone readers and contributors are most welcome – we need to start a conversation now about how to make a sustainable economy happen.