New Internationalist

Little Feats

Issue 329

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Sustainability / FOOTPRINTING

Sherwood and Merkel: 'We need to make quantum changes in the way we live.' Little feats
Humankind has built great cities, transplanted hearts and gone to the moon. But we've yet to prove we can live simply, equitably and peacefully on this planet. The NI talks with Erica Sherwood and Jim Merkel, a couple trying to measure their own 'ecological footprint' and live each day according to their fair share of the planet's resources - one acre each.

Erica: One thing I like about ‘footprinting’ is that it’s simply a number. It doesn’t say: ‘You need to live on one acre!’ It doesn’t say: ‘Quit your job and move to the mountains!’ It’s just a number, but it does help us see the implications of our lifestyle. When the reality of the numbers sink in, when it moves out of the abstract and into our bones, the motivation for real change arises.

I’ve learned from footprinting that it’s easy to think that you are being sustainable and a lot more challenging to live up to the numbers. You can buy only ‘green’ products and faithfully put your recycling bins out at the curb and still not be sustainable. Footprinting clarifies where to focus your attention and where to relax.

Recycling every container would be a small reduction compared to riding your bike to work. I admit it’s a struggle for me to keep track of things and I tend to shy away from numbers, but their relevance to my actual life makes it worth it. The reality is, if life is to continue on this planet in a sustainable way we need to make quantum changes in how we live. Somehow the skills to live simply need to become available on a large scale. And every one of us needs our own reason to do it.

Jim: The word ‘sustainable’ gets used a lot today, but how do you know if your life or business is truly sustainable? As a ‘recovering’ engineer I’ve searched for years for a tool to quantify ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecological footprinting’ is the best I’ve found.

I’ve met thousands of people who care about the Earth, but few in North America who actually live off anything like one acre. My hope is that in five years I can say I know thousands approaching what we call the ‘wise acre’.

Erica and I have been trying to reach the one-acre-each goal for five years. We share a small, super-insulated strawbale cabin we built for $1,600. We rarely burn fossil fuels, we eat an organic, regional, vegan diet and together our possessions could fill one medium-sized van. Yet we still consume three to four times more than our goal. But I keep reminding myself that about ten per cent of the world’s people are already ‘wise acres’. Some live in poverty, but some are actually doing great.

Living in Kerala in southern India convinced me that it is possible to have a high quality of life with very small eco-footprints. However, my gut told me I was a dreamer. Then I asked myself: ‘In what year would there be just a billion people on earth if humans began having, on average, one-child families?’

Ready for the epiphany? Only 100 years. Instead of trying to get six billion humans down to one acre each, we could turn it around. Our goal might be to get the Earth’s population down to a billion humans with an average footprint of six acres each. Or three billion humans with three acre footprints. The first phase would then be to reduce the footprints in wealthy nations while the world’s poor could increase their footprints. This leveling would ensure there are no losers.

Having one-child families for 100 years seems a small price to pay for a sustainable, bio-diverse planet. This would allow for 80 per cent of the bio-capacity of the Earth to be available for the 25 million other beings.

Erica: There was a lot for me to learn in taking on this lifestyle. There is a spiritual connection that happens when you become more directly connected with your livelihood that is incredibly powerful. I never would have thought that constructing a home, or digging a root cellar, or building compost bins would feel so meaningful. But then I get to live in this house and fill the root cellar with potatoes, to see it all come full circle. People wonder if I feel limited living on such a small income. Not in the least. Actually, it’s quite liberating.

Jim: Our primary strategy for homing in on the ‘wise acre’ was to move into our strawbale cabin. After weighing all the straw, wood, metal, glass and plastic in the cabin we found its footprint to be five times lower than standard US construction. Sharing a 290-square-foot cabin gives us 145 square feet per person. That’s five times lower than the North American average. The thick straw walls have resulted in us halving our firewood use from last year to just half a cord of wood each.

Erica: We’re now looking closer at our food footprint. This is our biggest item, along with firewood. Our hunch is that some of our local food might have a lower footprint than we think. One of our next projects will be to calculate the footprint of the local growers and our own gardens. To make sure we don’t get too off-track with our wild ideas we use a simple screening process that we appropriated from the business world: the triple bottom line. It’s got to reduce footprint, reduce money spent and save time. And of course, it’s got to be fun! If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.

Jim: We’re not trying to get everyone to live like us. Erica and I both began ‘simple living’ in the city and were very successful. I’m not concerned where people live or what their life looks like, be it high-tech, low-tech or no-tech. I just want to see their footprinting numbers. Diversity, creativity and having fun are key. If 100 people took on footprinting, you’d see 100 different lifestyles. Have you ever fallen in love? Remember that willingness to do just about anything to be with this person? Perhaps when we fall in love with Earth again, we will make the huge changes necessary for a sustainable planet.

Erica Sherwood spent most of 1999 on her bike with Jim Merkel (jmerkel@netidea.com) on the ‘Cycling for a Sustainable Future Tour’. They live in the Slocan Valley in the British Columbia interior. For more information on how to figure out your own ecological footprint contact the Global Living Project, GR4 C17 RR#1, Winlaw, BC, Canada VOG 2JO. Web: www.netidea.com/~jmerkel/

Determining the ‘wise acre’
To arrive at what they dubbed a ‘wise acre’ Erica and Jim used a mix of science, ethics and intuition.

[image, unknown] How much Earth is there? 125.8 billion acres
[image, unknown] How much bio-productive land and sea? 30.9 billion acres
[image, unknown] Current human population: 6 billion
[image, unknown] How much bio-capacity is there per person leaving nothing for the other species? 5.2 acres
[image, unknown] How much do humans on average use globally? 7 acres
[image, unknown] How much bio-capacity is there per person if we leave 80 per cent wild for the 25 million other species on Earth? 1 acre

With this goal of an acre each they began keeping track of every item they consumed using two powerful tools: ecological footprinting as developed by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel; and the process contained in the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, which helps them consider how much of their life is given over to paid work to earn money. At the end of each month they now know how many acres of Earth’s surface were appropriated to provide for their monthly consumption. Then they decide if their spending and footprint are in alignment with their values. To date their footprint is between three and four acres, about that of an average person in China.

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