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Living too large

Alan Braunholtz

April 22 is Earth Day, so why not look at what the Earth does for us? Simply put, it provides a great place to live compared to most planets we know of. We have food, oxygen, natural resources, soil formation, climate regulation and somewhere to dump our wastes and recycle them. We forget we depend on the ecosystems of the world to sustain us.The journal Nature estimated the economic value of these services as a rough but conservative $33 trillion . That’s more than 1.5 times the GNP of the world. Economically, it makes no sense to shortchange the environment. Then there’s the priceless natural beauty we spend so much time admiring, not to mention any ethical obligations to other creatures and future generations.We can’t afford to do what a healthy Earth does for us. Communism ignored economic realities and failed. Capitalism’s ignorance of its real environmental price may prove costly, too.There’s no shortage of signs that the world is struggling to sustain us. At 100 -1000 times the normal base rate of extinctions, we’re in the middle of the biggest die-off since the dinosaurs disappeared. Ecosystems depend on a complex web of life. The more complex the web, the stronger it is. Every extinction takes a strand away.The World Wildlife Fund pioneered the process of ecological footprint analysis. A footprint is an estimate of the land needed to sustain a person or population. It looks at the land built on, the fields, forests, mines and so on needed to meet consumer demands and the land needed to absorb all the waste products.We’re No. 1 here, requiring 10 hectares per person, with Europe at 5 and China at about 2. Overall, the world’s total footprint is 20 pecent larger than the Earth, so the planet is in a bit of a hole. This is why greenhouse gases and extinctions are rising.Before Europeans start pointing fingers, it’s interesting to mix a nation’s footprint with its bio-capacity. The U.S. is large and our extra bio-capacity helps us out. The United Kingdom uses 3.3 times more land in the world to support its lifestyle than it has. The U.S. only uses 1.8 times more – the same as Bangladesh, which while having a small footprint per person has a lot of people and little productive land.Instead of the current proposals that aim for a country’s emissions to be proportional to its population, some suggest using this ratio as a basis for greenhouse gas emissions – making each country self-sustaining with its footprint not exceeding its bio-capacity. It’s tough to be a European, or a Bangladeshi, though. How do you convince poor Bangladesh that they’re contributing as much as the U.S. to global warming?I’d look at it more as a measure of security. If your footprint is smaller than your bio-capacity, then you’re sustainable. Canada looks to do well in the future, though we’ll probably invade or buy it if we need to.Technology is going to have to help us out at reducing our footprints. Optimism suggests we’ll substitute our inefficient systems with better ones. For example, electricity wastes 95 percent of the energy in its extraction and transmission, so it shouldn’t be hard to get better.We have better technology now, but for leadership and social reasons we often ignore it. Individually we could all go out and replace every incandescent bulb with an energy-saving one. They use five times less energy, would save you $10 per year and last longer. We don’t, though, probably because of the higher purchase price even though we know we’d more than get it back. They’re harder to find, especially those that work with dimmer switches, and tough to find somewhere to recycle them. They have mercury in them, so it’s worth doing. But even in a landfill there’s less mercury in the environment than in the air from the extra coal burned to power an incandescent bulb. All of these are easily solvable and use of these bulbs would have a benefit for us and anyone who doesn’t like living next to a power station.As a society, we’ve been suckered by the car company ads for more power, luxury and weight. These models happen to have the highest mark-up and profits. Now we’re crying at the gas pumps at the injustice of it all. Though a 50-cent rise per gallon isn’t more than $250 a year, if you can afford a $30,000 SUV, you can afford that. Technology already exists to cut your fuel bill in half, but few of us are choosing it. We prefer a brash “look at me” vehicle to an economical one.Hopefully, gas prices will go higher and fuel economy will rise above cup holders on the shopping list. The founder of Auto Nation recommends a gas tax of $1 a gallon phased in over 10 years to get the public’s attention. His motivation is one of national security and our dependence on imported oil. We now import more than ever, and we need to wake up the market as part of a more secure energy policy. Better to do it now than in 10 years when a real shortage (not speculation) hits. Increased drilling without increased economy is pointless. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will reduce gas prices by 1 cent per gallon 20 years from now, according to the Energy Information Administration.Efficiency saves a lot more and reduces our ecological footprint. Living within your means used to be important to us.From the Earth’s point of view, it still is.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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