Why the Number of Feet Matters

10/24/2007 10:45 PM

A recent feature on population in the Economist discusses economic challenges when a nation’s population falls.  In this feature, “How to deal with a falling population”, 28 July 2007, the Economist tries to minimize concerns about world population by saying that we are “hardly near the point of [resource] exhaustion”.

The Economist received a flood of letters insisting that rising world population and resource depletion are indeed serious problems.  So many comments were sent in that the Economist published a follow-up piece, Population and its discontents: Lighten the footprint but keep the feet. This too highlighted deep misunderstandings about the relationship between population and humanity’s demand on our biosphere, and in particular, confusing population growth rates and population size.

Quite simply, our ecological demand is the product of 1)  the number of people times 2) per-capita demand (consumption) times 3) the efficiency of production. Each of these factors contributes to humanity’s Footprint, and each is important to address.
The Economist believes that we only have to focus on the efficiency side of the equation, but as population increases, the amount of earth’s resources available per person goes down, making it more difficult for people to meet their needs.

Since 1961, global population has increased over 200 percent, while average demand per person has increased by only 30 percent. Even if average global consumption rates stabilize or decrease, we will still go further into ecological overshoot, if population increases as all models project.

Ultimately, at a global level, both population and consumption are primary reasons that humanity is exceeding the planet’s ecological limits. To get out of overshoot we must openly address all the factors that contribute to it - efficiency of production, rates of consumption, and population.

For all of humanity to live well and within the means of one planet, we must begin addressing the number of feet as well as the size of the Footprint.

Learn More:

Read the Economist Article: How to deal with a falling population
Read critiques of the Economist article
Read the Economist’s Follow-up piece: Population and its discontents
World Footprint Overview
Footprint and Human Development in Africa



I fully agree that it is scientifically senseless to play the right-side factors of the I=PAT equation off against each other. Sure, we can try to measure each one’s contribution, but we should quit playing the game of ‘My Favorite Footprint Culprit’.

I believe we should give up hope of ‘tinkering’ and pussyfooting around on the right side of the equation. Footprint policy (reducing impact) should start on the LEFT side. If each political unit (country, usually) really stayed within its caps - whether fresh water, soil, carbon fuels [or emissions] - then each political unit would decide what combination of P, A, and T is desirable. If policy changes any of the three right-side factors, it changes the other two as well. I.e., at best complicated, at worst simply ineffective.

Thank you.

R. Overby raises a critical issue - Earth is not just for one species, which of course it is absolutely not! The Footprint is highlighting that what humanity is doing is not working for humanity, let alone the rest of the hundreds of millions of other species and ecosytems, on which humanity depends. The Footprint is deliberately constructed this way (setting aside all the other issues, the ethos that all life has an intrinsic value etc) to communicate to those operating from a hard-nosed, utilitarian view of nature, its still not working!

While you identify 3 part to our our ecological demand “1) the number of people times 2) per-capita demand (consumption) times 3) the efficiency of production.” You only provide data for the first 2. It would obviously be helpful in developing a credible view of things to see the data for all 3 areas.

It would also be interesting to see good data, if it exists, on the % of our production that is wasted, not through inefficiencies of production but through waste itself, or through lack of use, spoilage, etc.

As with most things, reducing waste by say 25% should, realistically, have greater than an equivalent reduction in initial demand. A 25% reduction in “end product” demand is something that I’ve recently started looking at personally as a current goal.

I don’t see any mention of other than humans. On Earth are also other lifeforms; som still truly wild, others increasingly not. To cram more people on to Earth, ‘developers’ will gladly get rid of all wild life;putting a roof on the Grand Canyon; filling it with people, and produce food for them as in ‘Soylent Green.’

All life on Earth -BIOKIND - have footprints; rerquiring Ecological Hectares to exist.


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