Measuring Footprints: A Tale of Two Families

  • Don Hinrichsen
  • Aug 01, 2002
JYOTI KHANDELWAL lives in one of the many overcrowded slums in Delhi that house nearly half of the 13 million residents of the city in India. The 17-year-old's neighborhood, called Premnagar, is a ramshackle collection of two- and three-story mud and brick buildings that slam up against each other like drunks on stilts. Open sewers line narrow lanes. The streets are not paved and, in the early summer heat, clouds of thick ochre-colored dust hang in the fetid air.

Jyoti uses public transportation to travel around the city and walks to the local secondary school, where she is in her last year. In many respects, she is luckier than most other slum dwellers in Indian cities. She lives in a house with five rooms, though she must share the 500-square-foot dwelling with her parents and 10 other relatives. But since her father operates a small jewelry shop, the family's income is above average--about 10,000 rupees ($150) a month.

On the other side of the planet, Tamas Revesz and his wife Anna recently purchased a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment in Rockaway, New Jersey. They live alone; both of their children have graduated from college.

Rockaway is one of the many nondescript suburbs that have sprung up around the New York City metropolitan area. Like most couples in the community, Anna and Tamas own two cars. "You simply cannot survive in suburban New Jersey without a vehicle," says Anna. An award-winning photographer who emigrated to the United States five years ago from Hungary, Tamas will soon become a U.S. citizen. Recently, he started up his own business--a small photographic and design firm. Anna is a guest professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Together, they earn about $4,000 per month.

A comparison of these two families, and how they impact the planet, seems particularly appropriate this year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the International Conference on Environment and Development. Known as the Earth Summit, the conference was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and was attended by representatives of 178 governments. It resulted in an ambitious blueprint for action with some 2,500 specific recommendations for managing resources and protecting the environment.

The Khandelwal and Revesz families are representative of the huge consumption gap that exists between people living in industrialized and developing countries--a gap that has grown considerably larger in the last ten years. The world's richest countries, with just 20 percent of the global population, account for more than 80 percent of total private consumption. The poorest 20 percent of humanity account for a mere 1.3 percent of private resource consumption.

Despite the fact that Tamas and his family are committed environmentalists, their impact on the planet--expressed as their "ecological footprint"--is significant compared to Jyoti and her family. Though both may be considered middle class by their respective societies, the similarity ends abruptly when looking at their consumption of resources.

According to William Rees, the University of British Columbia professor of urban planning who coined the term, an ecological footprint is a "measure of the load or impact on nature by a particular population." It represents "the land area necessary to sustain current levels of resource consumption and waste discharge by that population." In short, how much land is needed to support a particular economy sustainably over time at its current material standard of living?

Thanks to work done by Rees and his colleague, Mathais Wackernagel of the University of Anahuac de Xalapa in Mexico, it is possible to calculate a family or individual footprint based on type of transportation used, amount of living space, diet (food consumption), energy use, waste generation and other consumption patterns. Jyoti's footprint is 2.4 acres; Tamas' is 19 acres.

When scaled up globally, these figures carry an alarming message: If the entire world were to have the lifestyle enjoyed by Tamas and Anna, it would take four Planet Earths to provide the necessary resources at current rates of consumption and waste generation. Even more disturbing is Wackernagel's calculation that the average American footprint is 24 acres, a consumption level that, if enjoyed by everyone, would require five Earths to provide the necessary resources and space for wastes. By stark contrast, only one Earth is needed to support the entire global population at Jyoti's level of consumption.

Needless to say, population growth alone contributes to larger footprints because there are more people competing for finite resources. Take fresh water, for example. During the twentieth century, the global population tripled (from 2 to 6 billion), while water withdrawals for agricultural, industrial and municipal use increased sixfold--a combination of population growth and rising consumption levels.

Given such statistics, many environmentalists wonder why the agenda of the next global environmental meeting--the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held August 26 to September 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa--ignores population factors, such as growth rates, distribution and migration patterns and provision of health and family planning services. "Because the focus of the upcoming World Summit is eradicating poverty, it is critical that governments honestly address the complex linkages among poverty and inadequate health care and education, declining natural resources and a highly degraded environment," observes Karin Krchnak, manager of NWF's Population and Environment Program.

One solution, many conservationists believe, would be to include a frank discussion of footprints in the August agenda. Such a discussion, they argue, could help people understand how the decisions they make every day about what they choose to eat, where they vacation, how they get to work and where they choose to live have repercussions far beyond their immediate neighborhoods.

Conservationists remain hopeful that the World Summit will produce plans for implementing some of the actions called for a decade ago in Rio de Janiero. "In regard to freshwater supplies, for instance, the Rio agenda set a solid foundation for progress," says Krchnak, who also serves as co-chair of a United Nations caucus on water issues.

Krchnak notes that there is no more fresh water on Earth today than there was 2,000 years ago. "We need to create a freshwater action plan in Johannesburg," she says. "We simply cannot afford to ignore or underfund initiatives aimed at sustainable development."

Speaking at a conference in New Delhi last February, Gus Speth, former administrator of the United Nations Development Program, echoed that warning when he told the audience: "I stand before you today reviewing the same assortment of environmental woes that have bedeviled us for the past three decades. We need to act for change and we need to do it soon, for time is in fact running out on a number of these issues. The balance of life on this planet is at stake." Ultimately, each of us must ask ourselves: What is it worth to have ecological security for our children?

New York City journalist Don Hinrichsen is a consultant for the United Nations Population Fund.

How have the planet's human and natural resources fared in the ten years since the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro? Following is a brief snapshot:

Biodiversity: Today, two of every three species worldwide are thought to be in decline. IUCN-The World Conservation Union estimates that about 5,200 animal species are currently threatened with extinction, including 11 percent of all bird species and 20 percent of all freshwater fish species.
Population: Overall growth rates continue to fall. In 1992, United Nations population assessments indicated that more than 90 million people were being added to the global population every year. In 2002, the figure is estimated at 77 million a year. However, growth rates in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East continue to remain high.
Arable land: At the beginning of the 1990s, about 1.4 billion acres of cropland worldwide were considered degraded, out of a total of 3.7 billion acres. At the beginning of 2000, about 1.5 billion acres (or an additional 100 million acres) were considered degraded.
Fresh water: Currently 1.2 billion people lack access to potable water and 3 billion (about half the human race) do not have adequate sanitation facilities (compared to 2 billion in 1990).
Forests: Half the world's original forest cover (more than 7.4 million acres) have been lost. Deforestation has accelerated since 1990. Tropical forests, for instance, declined from 4.7 billion acres in 1990 to 4.3 billion in 2000. Throughout the 1990s, tropical forests were retreating at annual rates averaging 37.5 million acres.
Climate change: In 1990, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (the principal culprit in global warming) were measured at 355 parts per million. In 2000, concentrations were measured at 369 parts per million.
SOURCES: United Nations; World Resources Institute; Worldwatch Institute; Food and Agriculture Organization; Population Action International

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