Earth Day 2013: Trying to Save Earth a Great Disservice


Earth Day is not about saving the planet. At least I hope it is not. The greatest disservice we could do to Earth is to try to save it. Earth Day should be about us, human beings, because ultimately it is our survival that is at stake, not the Earth’s.

Earth is a complex and populous house where beings appear and disappear without altering its path. When we try to assess our impact on the environment, we generally use a measurement called the ecological footprint, that is the “measure of how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, a population or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates.”

The ecological footprint is generally measured in global hectares (gha), which computes productivity of an area reported to the Earth’s biocapacity and the ecological footprint (i.e. demand on biocapacity). In practice, a pastureland, which is less productive than a cropland, would occupy a greater area since more pastureland is needed to provide the same biocapacity as one hectare of cropland (definition of the Global Footprint Network).

That being said, as long as we withdraw as much as the planet can give, we are in equilibrium and can continue living as is. The global system can keep on going. But if we compute the global ecological footprint in 2008 (of a population of about 6-7 billion people), we find that it represents about 18 billion gha.

Humanity’s ecological footprint (1961-2007)

Source: Global Footprint Network, Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010, October 2010

Admitting that our planet provided only 11.9 billion gha of biocapacity in 2007 (1,8 gha per capita), an ecological footprint of 18 billion gha represented more than 50% excess demand on biocapacity, or 1.5 Earths. In other words, what we consumed in 2007 took one full year and six more months to Earth to generate it (see Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010 here)

The repartition of this surface among nations is another problem, which can logically be solved in two ways: either by enabling all individuals to have the same ecological footprint as the U.S. (5 to 8 gha per capita in 2008 according to WWF), which would require 2,8 to 4,4 planets; or by bringing down humanity’s ecological footprint to the levels of Sub-Saharan countries (between 1 and 2 gha) and we find ourselves in a global economic depression. Of course, the more we are, the smaller the gha per capita should be.

These measurements mean that it is humanity that is in danger, not the Earth. This is certainly commonplace to say, but it changes the way we design and plan environmental policies. Because of our consumption patterns there are, of course, many collateral damages, for instance in terms of degradation of biodiversity. But again, it is about our capacity to sustain our life on this planet, which already made it through numerous climate changes and extinctions of species. I do not know what should the solutions be. I am just suggesting that we adopt a more humble stance and reverse terminologies. We should take care of our own survival because this is what the game of nature is all about.

I heard somewhere that the intelligence of a species, in a very broad sense, translates in its ability to adapt and survive. In this respect, sharks are a fascinating species. They have been around for more than 400 million years, which means that they survived the dinosaurs, the meteorites, climate changes, and so on. They are still around, reigning over two thirds of the planet. This is, I believe, what can be perceived as a real model of success and survival.