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Elephant Tracks: Nova Scotia’s Ecological Footprint (2001)

Posted on Nov 25, 2011


Here is a simple way to save the earth. Exterminate the populations of North America, Japan and Western Europe.

Probably not a plan. Hard to make it fly politically. But it’s a thought that flickered through my mind as I reviewed the numbers in GPI Atlantic’s recent publication. Released a few weeks ago, [in 2001] The Nova Scotia Ecological Footprint is the first such report for any province in Canada.

GPI Atlantic, you may recall, is the valiant little non-profit organization which is working to produce a Genuine Progress Index for Nova Scotia — an instrument designed to measure our real well-being, not merely our capacity to succeed at pointless or damaging economic activity. To learn more — or order this new report — visit www.gpiatlantic.org.

The Nova Scotia Ecological Footprint is a startling document. Unlike most environmental assessments, it looks not at the impact of industry, but at consumption — the effect of eating fish or using lumber rather than the impact of the fishing or forest industries. It starts from the fact that each of us withdraws a certain amount every year from the great Bank of Nature. Each of us requires a certain amount of land to produce our food, a certain amount of energy to run our households, a certain amount of forest to absorb the greenhouse gasses we produce. The total demand I make on nature is my “ecological footprint” — the resources which I personally take from the planet. How much productive land and sea does my present lifestyle require?

Conversely, we can also calculate the amount of land and sea available to the human species, and ask, What’s my fair share? If you add up the total productive area of the earth’s land and sea, and divide it by the number of people on earth, you discover that the earth currently provides 1.8 hectares per person. But at today’s level of demand, human beings are using 2.8 hectares per person. We are not just using the planet’s resources; we are using them up — fishing out the oceans, demolishing the forests, impoverishing the topsoil, loading the air and the water with pollutants. We’re withdrawing our capital from the Bank of Nature.

The great strength of footprint analysis is that it reflects the complexity of the issues themselves, and the interplay between them — population, pollution, depletion, national and global inequity, extinctions, and all the other emerging horsemen of the new apocalypse. By measuring all consumption against the same standard — hectares of productive land and sea — it provides a detailed portrait of the problem.

For example, gas-guzzling SUV’s belch out twice as much greenhouse gas as compact cars, requiring twice as much forest land to absorb their emissions. It takes seven kilos of grain to produce a kilo of beef — so the agricultural footprint of meat-eaters is much higher than that of grain-eaters. The average Nova Scotian household requires almost one full hectare to compensate for its energy use — which is 4% above the Canadian average — partly because so many of us live in large, old, fully-detached rural houses. Nearly 14% of Nova Scotia’s total energy footprint is in our food, 88% of which we import. In addition, our electricity derives largely from coal, the dirtiest of all generating fuels. That’s the main reason that our total ecological footprint is higher than the Canadian average.

Overall, Canada’s ecological footprint is 7.7 hectares per person. Nova Scotia’s is 8.1 hectares — compared to 0.6 hectares for Bangladeshis, 1.3 for Africans, 1.8 for Asians, 12.2 for Americans, and 7.2 for OECD nations generally. The world’s richest people constitute 30% of the earth’s population, but consume 70% of its resources. That’s us, friends.

Footprint analysis measures the effects of consumption wherever they occur, and shows that the First World’s reckless consumption is the engine that drives the global ecological overdraft. Every Nova Scotian stresses the planet more than 13 Bangladeshis. We’re part of the richest 20% of the earth’s population, which consumes 45% of its meat and fish, 58% of its energy, 84% of its paper. If the populations of the First World were exterminated tomorrow, the earth’s remaining 4.8 billion people could live happily ever after, since they draw from nature only what the biosphere can sustainably produce.

Probably not a plan, as I said. Still, what should we do about North America’s runaway economy, which is ripping through the earth’s resources like a power saw going through a pine board? The novel contribution of *The Nova Scotia Ecological Footprint* is that it *measures* what we’re doing, reveals the trends, and pinpoints the most effective steps we could take — right here, right now — to reduce our impact on the planet.

So what are those steps?

Essentially, GPI Atlantic proposes that we undertake to reduce our footprint to 7 ha. now. It seems a modest goal, and most of us could probably achieve it simply by changing our habits. There is no one simple fix; we affect the environment in everything we do. But we have actually known many of the solutions since the oil shocks of the 1970s, though we abandoned them when the oil price fell.
We can buy intelligent, efficient vehicles and resolve once again to turn down our thermostats. We can insulate our houses, drive less, walk more. Those actions drove our provincial footprint down from 9.7 ha. in 1979 to less than 7 ha. in the early 1980s. We can also use more local products, especially food. The energy used in producing and delivering food represents nearly 14% of our total energy use, remember, and the average item of food in our shopping carts comes from 2000 km. away. 
In short, we can strive to follow the dramatic example of Phil Thompson, an energy consultant on Saltmarsh Island on the Eastern Shore, who powers his small home on one horsepower, derived entirely from renewable sources. That’s about 80% less energy than even frugal North American homes, and it demonstrates what a dedicated individual can accomplish even against the grain of a wasteful consumer society.
Still, there is a limit to what we can do as individuals. A deep reduction in our footprint requires serious political and social change. We need to plan differently, tax differently, build differently, think differently.
The good news is that such changes can also improve the quality of our lives. Consider food, once again. In 1921, Nova Scotia had 47,000 farms with nearly two million hectares under cultivation, and we were largely self-sufficient in food. Today the number of farms has shrunk by 90%, and the area of farmland by 80%. Strong support for sustainable farming and local agriculture would re-invigorate rural life while reducing both our energy footprint and our dependence on imports. Fresh organic foods would improve our diet as well, and reduce the strain on our health-care system. Obesity, says GPI, probably costs Nova Scotia $120 million in health care costs every year.
Other changes may be highly controversial. We should invest heavily in public transportation, for example, subsidizing trains and busses while discouraging private vehicle use. In practice, that might mean implementing commuter rail service down the South Shore and the Valley from Halifax rather than twinning Highways 101 and 103. Some motorists would be outraged. We could also use tax incentives and regulation to discourage suburban sprawl and foster higher-density neighbourhoods. Builders and owners of suburban monster homes would scream about that, too.
But Nova Scotians are frugal people who instinctively understand that waste is ultimately immoral — a point which the GPI report underlines strongly. Because nature’s resources are limited, over-consumption in one time or place produces poverty elsewhere. Ultimately the First World can remain rich only by compelling the Third World to remain poor, and the present generation’s prosperity must inevitably result in the impoverishment — or worse — of our descendants.
Hence the First World’s unholy passion for free trade uber alles, unrestricted by social and environmental constraints. Such trade arrangements permit the wealthy to pillage the resources of distant places while exporting the burdens of development. We get the sneakers and the stereos, while Asia and South America get the pollution, the child labour, the shanty-towns. The weight of our footprint crushes people in very distant places.
The most difficult change will be in our attitudes. We cherish economic growth, as measured by an increasing Gross Domestic Product — but a rising GDP actually intensifies our problems. We view consumption as a badge of success, not as a symptom of social irresponsibility. We shun physical activity, and die of preventable diseases.
But GPI points out that we have shown ourselves capable of dramatic improvements. We reduced our solid waste footprint by 50% in a decade, making Nova Scotia a world leader in recycling. Bear River has implemented award-winning sewage treatment facilities. Citizen effort is restoring our salmon streams. The Western Valley Development Authority is exploring wind-powered electrical generation.
The Nova Scotia Ecological Footprint is a provocative portrayal of our very own contributions to the global crisis. What we do with the information is up to us. But we can no longer say we didn’t know.


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