Marshall's Reviews > Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth

Our Ecological Footprint by Mathis Wackernagel
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Dec 11, 2010

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bookshelves: ecology, economics, non-fiction, science, voluntary-simplicity
Recommended for: Environmentalists
Read from November 26 to December 11, 2010 , read count: 1

This book describes the Ecological Footprint analysis technique, written by its creators. This is the most promising approach to sustainability I've found thus far. It advocates replacing sustainability-as-sacrifice and sustainability-as-moralizing with an empirical approach in which "sustainability" is actually defined and quantified, and our impact on the Earth and environment is measured. This is just a model, and estimates must be used, as it's impossible to know exactly what the human carrying capacity is or what exactly is our impact on the Earth. But it's sufficient to redirect environmental rhetoric toward more useful dialogue, and to help us know exactly what needs to change, and what priority to place on these changes.

I really love the way this book words things. It never says, "environmentally-friendly," for example (as if we're somehow hurting the environment's feelings). It constantly reminds the reader that there is no such thing as an "environment," as something "out there." We ARE the "environment." However, the actual details of this book made my eyes glaze over. Numbers with units like "cubic meter/ha/yr" were bandied about indiscrimately while not going into much detail about how the numbers are arrived at, let alone how we can calculate an ecological footprint ourselves, which is why I read this book in the first place. Then, I guess in an attempt to make this book more accessible, there are useless figures featuring really bad cartoons of a character shaped out of a footprint, with the big toe as his head.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Simin (new) - added it

Simin could you send me this book? because I canot buy it in iran. I should study this book for my thesis which is about ecological footprint. thanks


message 2: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Simin, the book is copyrighted and not free. But many papers about the ecological footprint are available outside paywalls, such as this one:

van den Bergh, J.; Verbruggen, H. (1999). "Spatial sustainability, trade and indicators: an evaluation of the 'ecological footprint'". Ecological Economics 29 (1): 61−72. ftp://131.252.97.79/Transfer/ES_Pubs/...


message 3: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Marshall, whether one takes the default position that the environment is something to be consumed and exploited for personal gain (such as by, for example, enjoying a holiday flight, or a heated home in winter), or whether one says humans should strive to minimize their harmful impact on the Earth, one is unavoidably taking a moral position.

See the "fact-value distinction" in philosophy. We can have all the facts in the world about what our behavioral choices are doing to the environment, but facts alone do not determine why you should prefer the welfare of the environment over your own personal well-being, convenience, or enjoyment. Science is about what is, or what will happen if we do X. Moral philosophy (or ethics) is about what we ought to do. And despite Sam Harris' attempt to put morality on a scientific footing (see The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values), science still is not far enough advanced to positively state why you (or I, or anyone else) should prefer environmental restraint over, say, the planet-wrecking materialistic hedonism which drives every modern economy.

We can buttress our values with heaps of facts - and we should inform our values with facts wherever possible - but ultimately our values involve arbitrary choices between competing interests. Science can tell us about the impacts our current behaviors will have on the grandchildren 50 years from now, but science cannot yet tell us why we should care about them more than we care about consuming goodies today. The choice to care is a moral choice, and everyone has to make that choice on their own.


message 4: by Daniel (new)

Daniel As another example of the fact-value distinction, consider the problem of slavery. You can have all the facts about the harm that slavery does to slaves, but if you are a slave owner, you might only care about the benefits to you. As a slave owner, you are in position to steal labor from slaves. If you only care about yourself, the facts do not give you any reason to free your slaves. We only managed to eliminate slavery once enough people decided, arbitrarily, that stealing labor from slaves was immoral.


Marshall Hi Daniel,
Interesting points. I think the problem with morality is everyone's got their own. What has happened with environmentalism is that it's become like a religion, with waste and pollution being sins, complete with proselytizing, promises of damnation, and righteous fundamentalists. I don't think this worked out very well for religion either, but in this case we have something real and vital at stake--our very survival as a species. I don't want to leave this in the hands of moralizers.

But as you rightly point out, there is an ethical component to it. What ought we do? I do think it's a unique ethical proposition, however. It's like asking whether we "ought" to put out the fire in our burning house. I don't need moral teachings to convince me to do this. Of course, in this case, the "house" is very big, and some rooms will catch on fire first. Should we put out the fire now, or wait until it reaches our room before we bother? That's definitely a moral question.

But once we've decided we need to do something, there's still a huge disagreement over what we should focus our efforts on, as our capacity for change is limited. For this, I think we definitely need science, and lots of it. We need to measure exactly where we will get the most bang for our buck. Otherwise, people will just base their decisions on emotional reasoning.


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