Pique in your interest 

Tread lightly

It’s almost too simple.

Knowing that the circumference of planet earth is about 40,000 kilometres, we can deduce, through a series of simple geometric formulas that the total surface area of the planet is about 50 billion hectares. Almost 70 per cent of that is ocean, and another large chunk of land is uninhabitable.

As a result, all existing life forms are crowded onto less than 25 per cent of the earth’s surface. That 25 per cent has to produce the things we need, namely air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, clothing to cover our naked bodies, oil to fill up our SUVs, and so on and so. We also have to live on it, play on it, and share it with other species, although the latter doesn’t seem to be a priority in Canada with Parliament once again bumbling the legislation of a Species At Risk Act.

When you do the math, with a global population of 6.1 billion people, it averages out to about two hectares of ecologically productive land per person. That’s adequate to provide us with the basic necessities of life, but not the luxuries of our modern society.

For those of you who still don’t think in metric terms, a 100 metre by 100 metre hectare equals about 2.47 acres – about two and half football fields.

The World Wildlife Fund, opting to set realistic goals that countries and corporations might actually go along with, recommends protecting about 10 per cent of the livable planet in parks – the good valley bottom stuff that produces the biomass we need to survive, not the inhospitable rock and ice that the B.C. government routinely passes off as parkland.

If we doubled that recommendation to about 20 per cent – just for comforts’ sake, we’d get about 1.6 hectares each.

I know what you’re thinking: More bad news, more numbers spun by the insidious Greens to scare the public into going vegetarian, driving electric cars and wearing hemp clothing.

It’s a little more serious than that. For years we’ve used and abused the planet without any kind of accounting system in place to determine where we stand. Are we losing our resources faster than nature can replenish them? If so, at what rate? How long can this go on?

According to sustainability expert Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, the co-founder of the Ecological Footprint concept, these figures are the only means we have to determine where we stand, and whether things are getting better or worse.

"Are we going over budget? Are we spending our capital?" he asked the crowd of 200 who turned out to the Chateau to catch his presentation on the Whistler’s Ecological Footprint. His presentation was part of the Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation speaker series and Whistler’s sustainability initiative.

Dr. Wackernagel’s answer, as you can probably guess, was an emphatic "Yes!"

Back in the 1970s it took about three quarters of a year for nature to replenish the resources we consume annually. Today, it would take about 1.35 years to replenish what we use in a single year. Increased consumption and a reduced ecology are to blame, both of which are attributable to human activities. In other words, we’re writing cheques our collective butts can’t cash.

Countries that spend more money than they take in go into debt. Some of them never get out. The same thing is happening with the environment.

We have no system in place to pay the planet back, or to replenish lost ecological capital. Nor do we appear willing to give up our want-it, waste-it lifestyles.

In the U.S., the average ecological footprint at current consumption rates is 13 hectares per person. In Canada, it’s about ten. In Mexico it’s only 2.6 hectares per person.

On the Redefining Progress Web site at www.redefiningprogress.org, the organization Dr. Wackernagel belongs to, you can measure your own ecological footprint using a special calculator.

My own personal footprint is about four hectares, or more than double what’s biologically sustainable. If everyone on the planet lived like I do, we’d need about two more planets.

That’s a big number when you consider that I’m a vegetarian, don’t own a car, don’t travel much, and try to conserve energy wherever possible.

While this is obviously a basic calculation that doesn’t take a number of factors into account, it’s still an important frame of reference – if we don’t start measuring our impact on the planet now, we will lose our room to manoeuvre, and make ecologically smart, sustainable decisions. The earth has given itself over to periods of mass extinction before, and it can do so again.

For Whistler’s sustainability initiative to work we’re all going to have to take responsibility for reducing our own ecological footprint – otherwise what’s the point?

Or we can sit back, spend the rest of our ecological capital living the way we’ve become accustomed to, and wait to be repossessed.

— Andrew Mitchell

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