In the words of author Jim Merkel, this book acts as a kind of "monthly Earth checkbook balance statement, a method to measure just how much nature was needed to supply all you consume and absorb your effluent." But why would anyone want to do that? you may be wondering. Because currently the world's wealthiest one billion people alone consume the equivalent of the Earth's entire sustainable yield. All together, humanity consumes 20 percent more than the earth's sustainable yield.
"Well hold on," you might ask, "why haven't we begun to experience ecological collapse? Why aren't people and animals starving to death by the millions?"
The short answer is that they are, although the word collapse is a bit misleading. Over the last century, wars have claimed 175 million lives. And if you know your history, you would also know that most, if not all, of those wars were fought to eliminate other humans, gain land and resources, or maintain geopolitical and economic security. As for hunger and starvation, in 1998 half of the 1.3 billion people who lived on less than $110 per year have stunted growth or mental retardation from insufficient caloric intake. The poorest 3.6 billion - 60 percent of humanity - live on less than $520 per year. A third of the world's children suffer from malnutrition, of which tens of thousands die every day. Of course, we have the food to feed these children, which makes the problem of starvation one of distribution not want; but the land agriculture has usurped from nature in order to support (or not support, as it were) our six billion person plus population is starving out animals and overburdening the landscape. Scientists estimate that between 1,000 and 100,000 species of life become extinct every 24 hours, a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than the natural rate, mostly due to habitat loss.
In order to talk about sustainability, says Merkel, we have to talk about ecological footprints. Your ecological footprint is "the amount of bioproductive land and sea area in continuous production to supply all you use and to absorb your wastes, using prevailing technology." Sustainability, then, is an overall social pattern in which the combined ecological footprint of humanity does not tax the planetary yield faster than it can regenerate. When humanity drains the bioproductivity of Earth faster than it replenishes, we see ecological damage: fisheries collapse, forests shrink, rangelands deteriorate, soils erode, species vanish, temperatures rise, rivers run dry and water tables fall - in other words, the kind of stuff we read about in the morning newspaper. Scientists call this ecological overshoot, and it has been happening for some time.
"The year 1978" says Merkel, "was a special year in both Earth's history and human history, and it passed without notice. It was the year humans claimed the entire sustainable yield of Earth." But now it is 2004, and the stakes have risen. Humanity now gobbles up some 20 percent more than is produced, thus wearing down the Earth's system. If humanity continues to overexploitation the bioproductivity of Earth, it will lose the capacity to support life. That is a simple fact. Thus, ecological footprinting is the best way to take the guesswork out of sustainability. In Merkel's words, "It allows us to measure our progress."
But then, what is progress? Progress for who? Sustainability, you ask? Sure, but at what cost?
To some, paving over the entire world and covering it with skyscrapers, channeling every brook and stream to flow through culverts, and relying on large multinational corporation synthesize our food from genetically-modified seeds sounds appealing, perhaps even sustainable. To others, sustainability entails reverting to something like the Stone Age and hunting in the forest with blunt instruments for wild game. Acknowledging this diverse range values, Merkel takes the middle path. He merely asks us discover and then live according to our own values.
"What is your worldview?" he asks. The bottom line is "that there are 28.2 billion acres of bioproductive land on Earth - the total surface area minus the deep oceans, deserts, icecaps and built-up land. When divided between six billion people, each person gets a 4.7-acre share - we'll call this area each person's 'personal planetoid.' But this assumes that humanity uses the entire planet's annual production. The question then becomes 'How much of my 4.7-acre share do I want to use for myself and how much do I want to leave fore other life forms?'"
After quizzing you about your preferred tax on the planet's bioproductivity, desired world population, and desired equity among other human inhabitants, he then shows you how many acres of land you can optimally utilize while keeping in line with your values. This is your "sustainability goal." For example, my desired sustainability goal was absolute equity among humans, with 90% of Earth left untouched and wild and a two-child family, thus leaving humanity with a remainder of only 10% of bioproductive land base and me personally a mere 1.45794 acres. (Radical simplicity indeed! Looks like I'll have to ditch a kid or two.) Recognition of your goal is the first step. The next step involves working to attain your sustainability goal in action. Merkel calls this the "Wiseacre Challenge."
All of this might seem a bit anal for some, but the point is to gain a balanced, objective picture of our individual impact on the biosphere. Once we have that, we can start simplifying our life; and if you have read Your Money or Your Life you know that simple living actually saves money, time and a whole lot of headache. Living 'closer to the bone' turns out to be more carefree and fun than, say, the daily corporate grind. And Merkel is an example here. Although he has managed to live on an annual budget of merely 5,000 dollars (to avoid supporting the military industrial complex via taxation) for the last 20 years, his life has been full of adventure, relaxation, and a certain joy de vivre many of us have never known. Along with the charts, mathematical formulas and statistics, this book is peppered with interesting anecdotes about those twenty years, proving just how fun and fulfilling simple living can be.
Engaging, insightful, and profoundly transformative, this book should not be overlooked