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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Public Speaking: The Ecological Footprint

For my second speech at Toastmasters, I decided to experiment: Take a fairly radical ecological topic, and inspire my audience to take action. The good news: They loved it, said it was timely and important, and even referred to Mr Gore's sermons.

Here's the an introduction to the ecological footprint in six minutes:

Help yourselves to a biscuit, take a drink: Today I'm going to speak about consumption, about limits to consumption and particularly how we could measure these limits where they exist.

The measure I want to talk about today is called the ecological footprint. As I assume that most of you will not be familiar with this concept, I'm going to do three things:
  1. I'm going to introduce the concept
  2. I'm going to give you a couple of figures
  3. I'll propose a couple of areas that influence the ecological footprint.

Basically, we're talking about measuring the use of natural resources. Use of natural resources, that's two things:
  1. The stuff that we take out of nature: Our food, our fuels; and
  2. The stuff that we dump back into nature: Our wastes, but also our carbon emissions.
You can take all these figures and calculate the actual area that would be needed to produce all these resources on the one hand - and to absorb the wastes on the other. What you come up with in the end is a number of hectares, the footprint that you need to stand on to sustain your lifestyle and your consumption. You calculate a footprint for individuals, but you can also do that for whole nations or even the entire planet. And then you can go on and compare it with the area that's actually available on this planet.

And when you do that, you will notice that the global ecological footprint is about a quarter larger than planet Earth. That means we're consuming more than nature is producing, and that is already the case since the 1980's. Every economist in the room will know what's happening when consumption is larger than production: Yes, you need to spend your capital. Capital in this case is not money, but it means we're losing our forests, we're destroying our fisheries and we're playing with the atmosphere's capacity to regulate the climate.

While this is already pretty startling, it becomes more severe when you look at the footprints of individual nations. If for example, everyone on this planet had the same lifestyle as the average US American, we would need not one planet, we would need five. That means we're borrowing heavily from the people in the South to sustain our lifestyle. And at the same time, as these countries develop, there is a large population that aspires to have the same lifestyle as we in the North have.

The numbers are slightly better in Europe, but not quite. We would still need three planets, but we only have one. So it's very clear that if you put any trust into these figures, something needs to happen. And while there are a lot of things that society can do, I would like to focus on three areas where we personally can make an impact.

  • The first is food. It does make a difference if our apples come from New Zealand or from Belgium, and it does make a difference how much processing needed to happen to our food on its way from the field to the plate.
  • The second is mobility. How much do we travel, how much do we need to travel, and how efficient do we do that? There is a difference between a 4x4 and a hybrid car, between a train and a plane, between a motorbike and a pair of running shoes.
  • The third area is housing. We can choose where we live - and that impacts on how much we need to travel - but we can also choose how much stuff and energy we need, how often we use it, and how soon we throw things away.

And if you take all this together, I think it's very clear that, yes, lifestyles and consumption do matter. And it's also very clear that lifestyles and consumption in the North will need to change - if we want to give this planet a chance. So, what I'd like to ask you is - if you liked what I just said, and if you maybe had one or two ideas what you personally could do - write them down, take them home, and then - make them happen.

You can calculate your own ecological footprint with the Ecological Footprint Quiz. For more information about the methodology, visit the Global Footprint Network.

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