Environmental footprints: a tale of two families

Posted: 21 January 2003

Author: Don Hinrichsen

Every family on the planet has its own impact on the global environment and the natural resources it contains. Here Don Hinrichsen looks at the 'ecological footprint' of two contrasting families.

Jyoti KhandelwalJyoti Khandelwal© Don HinrichsenJyoti Khandelwal is a lovely 17 year old girl with almond eyes and lustrous dark hair. She lives in one of New Delhi's numerous slums, called Premnagar. Close to half the population of India's capital city - some 5 million -- live rough on the streets, in dismal squatter settlements, or in cramped, over-crowded slums like this one.

Jyoti's neighbourhood is a ramshackle collection of two and three story mud and brick buildings that slam up against each other like drunks on stilts. Open sewers line narrow lanes. Flies buzz incessantly. The streets are not paved and in the early summer heat clouds of thick ochre-colored dust hang in the fetid air. The lanes are a cross section of Indian society brimming over with obstinate donkey carts, noisy pedicabs and mopeds, straining rickshaws, and the occasional smoke-belching truck, all weaving around pigs, cattle and pedestrians.

Jyoti is luckier than other slum dwellers in Indian cities. She lives in a house with five rooms, a separate kitchen and a primitive water closet that consists of a concrete slab with a hole in the middle (there are virtually no flush toilets in India except in hotels and upper class neighborhoods). Primitive as the toilet is, at least she doesn't have to squat in the nearest open space or along the street to relieve herself, as the majority of poor Indians do.

Five rooms

Space is at a premium - just 500 square feet of living space, including a small room off the open roof, which Jyoti shares with her three cousins - one girl and two boys. In all, 12 people live in these five rooms - Jyoti, her parents, two brothers, her grandparents (on her father's side), plus her father's sister and her husband and their three children. Most rooms have a bare light bulb dangling precariously form the ceiling and no windows.

Since Jyoti's father operates a small jewelry shop, two doors away, the family's income is above average - round $10,000 rupees per month ($150). Her mother, unlike many others in this traditional Hindu community, helps her husband in the shop from time to time. This income level makes the Khandelwals middle class by Indian standards. Despite the squalor, Premnagar is a community on the rise.

Jyoti uses public transport - mostly Delhi's creaking, rickety buses - to travel around. She walks to the local secondary school, where she is in her last year.

"I intend to study at the university next year, using a new distance learning system that doesn't require me to attend classes every day," explains Jyoti in clear English. "My parents would worry about me journeying such a long way every day. This way, I can still get a university degree in teaching and hopefully work in a poor community where an education can mean a huge difference for both boys and girls."

Different world

On the other side of Planet Earth people live in a different world. Tamas Revesz and his wife Anna just bought a three bedroom apartment, totaling 1,400 square feet, in Rockaway, New Jersey. They live in it alone, as both their children are university graduates and have jobs. Their son, Andras, operates his own travel agency in Manhattan. Their daughter Judit was a lawyer in Budapest, but now lives with the family in New Jersey and recently completed a course in conflict resolution at Colombia University. Rockaway is one of the many nondescript suburbs that have sprung up around greater New York City, contributing to the urban sprawl that has gobbled up wild and agricultural lands along the Northeast corridor - a huge urbanized swath of land stretching from Boston to Washington DC boasting an average population density of close to 3,000 per square kilometre.

Typically, the Revesz family has two cars - one for each. "You simply cannot survive in suburban New Jersey without a vehicle," points out Anna. Tamas, an award winning photographer who emigrated to the States five years ago from Hungary, will become a US citizen in a few months. Recently, he started up his own business - a small printing, photographic and design firm in Englewood, New Jersey. Anna is a guest professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Since emigrating to the States the Revesz family's income has gone down a little compared to what they used to make in Budapest. Tamas and Anna together earn around $4,000 per month. Says Tamas, "in Hungary we were big fish in a little pond; here we are little fish in a very big pond. But it is more exciting and challenging to be here than in Europe."

Despite the fact that Tamas and his family are committed environmentalists, their impact on the environment - expressed as the "ecological footprint" -- is considerable, compared to Jyoti and her family. Both may be considered middle class by their respective societies, but the similarity ends abruptly when looking at their consumption of resources and use of land.

According to William Rees, the Canadian professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia, who coined the term "ecological footprint", it is a "measure of the load or impact on nature by a particular population. It represents," he reasons, " the land area necessary to sustain current levels of resource consumption and waste discharge by that population." In short, how much land would be necessary to support a particular economy sustainably over time at its current material standard of living?

Thanks to work done by Professor Rees and his colleague Mathais Wackernagel from the University of Anahuac de Xalapa in Mexico, it is possible to calculate a family or individual footprint, based on consumption patterns, type of transportation used, amount of living space, diet (food consumption), energy use and waste generation.

In other words, asks Rees, how much land area per person is required to supply the average American or Indian with shelter, food, water, wood products (including paper), transportation and provide space to accommodate wastes? The formula Rees and Wackernagel came up with allows each individual on the planet to calculate roughly his or her impact on the biosphere.

Consumption gap

Jyoti's footprint is one hectare (2.4 acres), compared to Tamas' which is 8 hectares (19 acres). When scaled up globally, these figures carry an alarming message. If the entire world were to have the lifestyle enjoyed by Tamas and Anna, it would take four planet earths to provided the necessary resources at current rates of consumption and waste generation. By stark contrast, Jyoti's footprint requires that only one planet earth would be needed to support the entire global population at her level of consumption and waste generation; exactly what we have available.

More disturbing is Wackernagel's calculation that the average American footprint is 24 acres (9.8 hectares), a consumption level that, if enjoyed by everyone on earth, would require 5 planet earths to provide the necessary resources and space for wastes.

It is a well known fact that a huge and growing consumption gap exists between industrialized and developing countries. The world's richest countries, with just 20% of the global population account for over 80 per cent of total private consumption and are responsible for a grossly inflated share of resource use and environmental degradation. By contrast, the poorest 20 per cent humanity - the 1.2 billion living on less than one dollar a day -- account for a mere 1.3 per cent of private consumption. This group also contributes to a disproportionate share of environmental destruction because of deepening poverty and a lack of options.

Though the worst destruction of the planet's resources may be attributed directly or indirectly to the 2.4 billion at the bottom and top of the global economy, everyone on the planet leaves an ecological footprint behind them. The 3.7 billion Jyoti's in the world do not tread as heavily as the richest and poorest, but they leave footprints.

Population growth

Population growth alone contributes to larger footprints because there are more people competing for finite resources. With population growth comes rising consumption of resources as societies develop; relentlessly those footprints become ever larger and deeper. Take freshwater as an example. During the 20th Century the global population grew three times (from 2 to 6 billion), while water withdrawals for agricultural, industrial and municipal use increased by over six times - a combination of population growth and rising consumption levels.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the International Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. This landmark conference was attended by representatives of 172 governments, including 108 heads of state. It resulted in an ambitious blueprint for action, known as Agenda 21, which contains some 2,500 specific recommendations for action to manage resources and protect the environment.

Critics consider it ironic that the Earth Summit Plus 10 conference, held in Johannesburg, South Africa virtually ignores population factors, such as growth rates in poor countries, distribution and migration patterns, urbanization trends and provision of health and family planning services. By contrast, the Rio Conference factored these concerns into the analysis of what needed to be done.

A frank discussion of footprints would be one way to underscore for a sceptical public the impact of growing populations and escalating consumption patterns on the earth's finite resource base. It would be a way for the average person to grasp in a real everyday way, how decisions about what to eat, where to holiday, how to get to work, where to live have repercussions far beyond your immediate neighborhood or city. It would put flesh on the skeleton of sustainable development.

Ecological security

Gus Speth, former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), speaking at a Sustainable Development Summit, hosted by an Indian NGO in New Delhi in February 2002 put it bluntly: "I stand before you today reviewing the same assortment of environmental woes that have bedeviled us for the past three decades, since the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. We need to act for change and we need to do it soon," he told the stunned audience, " for time is in fact running out on a number of these issues. The balance of life on this planet is at stake."

A fundamental question is: can the growing aspirations and needs of the Jyoti's of the world be accommodated sustainably in a world heading towards serious resource constraints, fueled in part by escalating consumption patterns of Americans and Europeans? Will there be enough to go around, not just for people but for the millions of other species that share Spaceship Earth with us, especially in terms of water resources? In short, can we have development for everyone on earth in a fashion that does not destroy our resource base in the process? Ultimately we have to ask: what is it worth to have ecological security for our children?

To find out the size of your individual or family's ecological footprint visit the following website: bestfootforward.com and follow the prompts.See also: