Every living thing on Earth consumes something, from the greatest whale to the tiniest microbe. Their consumption is part of the contribution they make to their environment. In a healthy environment, this exchange of energy supports the life cycles of all. As humans, we are unique: With short-sighted ingenuity, we tend to harvest, strip-mine and consume resources at a rate that compromises our very survival. Obviously, that means trouble.
Footprints aren't just the literal marks we make, trekking across the ground. Footprints can also be concepts, measurements of the impact our lifestyles and personal choices have on the environment. According to the Global Footprint Network, this ecological footprint is a "metric that compares the resource demand by individuals, governments, and businesses against what the Earth can renew." How much do we take from the Earth, and what of that can be replenished?
This spinning green and blue marble we live upon has finite resources. To support our current levels of consumption, we would need the environmental resource of 1.75 planets. We don't have 1.75 planets; we only have one. As any first-time credit card holder learns, when your expenses exceed your income, it eventually catches up with you. Humanity is living beyond its means.
If we imagine the issue on a planetary scale, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Where do we fit in this equation as individuals, and how do our actions impact the whole? There are lots of online resources to calculate your own footprint. The Global Footprint Network offers one of the better online quizzes. In this context, "better" does not mean "gave me the results I wanted." Alas, no angel am I. Despite my efforts to tread lightly on the Earth, I'm coming in at 1.4 planets, meaning if everyone on Earth lived just like me, we'd still be in trouble. (A 1:1 ratio is what we need to live in balance with our environment; anything above that uses more resources than our planet can supply).
Once I looked at the data more closely, I learned where I could improve: shelter. Inefficient energy use at home is my Achilles heel. That's a bit frustrating since I'm a renter with limited control in this area. A vintage 70s-era refrigerator, for example, is still kicking and gurgling along in my rented kitchen, large enough that I could someday be buried in it. The global footprint calculator has taught me that upcycling a massively inefficient appliance as a coffin probably isn't the right kind of creative. I ran through the quiz a few more times with aspirational responses to figure out what changes might bring me below the 1 planet threshold. (Here's a plot twist I didn't see coming: Using a dishwasher uses less energy than washing by hand! Weird!) With some achievable tweaks to my daily routine, I'm able to (theoretically) bring myself back into balance with the Earth. There is hope!
Crops leave footprints, too.
If we can calculate the ecological footprint of a person or business, can it also be assessed for an industry such as genetically modified crops? The questions would be different, of course. Asking herbicide-tolerant GMO corn how often it commutes by motorcycle gets us nowhere. Because natural systems are complex, we need to look at the big picture of GMOs: the diverse species, fertilizers and other chemicals that are employed and affected.
Considering that big picture — how we rely on and utilize the Earth's resources — is essential to understanding how we can leave the Earth better off than we found it. In Part 2 of this blog, we'll look at the ecological footprint of GMOs and how our food choices can nourish ourselves and our planet. Join us next week!