Thursday, October 24, 2002

I'll Have a Big Mac, Three Disposable Planets, and a Large Coke, Please

I am proud and happy to announce that if everyone on the planet lived like me, we would need 6.5 planets -- this according to BBC News Online's Disposable Planet Quiz.

I suppose I should feel suitably chastened, trade in my car for a bicycle, become a vegetarian, reduce my electricity usage to what I can pull from solar panels in my windows, and (most important of all) support the recommendations of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development.

I'm not buying. The Eco-Footprint approach relies on the same faulty assumptions behind Paul Erlich's _Population Bomb_ (which was supposed to explode a couple of decades ago -- what happened?) and other Malthusian nightmare scenarios. The quiz's result is based on the number of "biologically productive global hectares" available in the world, relative to how many I allegedly consume. There are, the site says, only 1.8 such hectares per person worldwide, whereas the average American creates an "Ecological Footprint" of 9.7 (I beat the average with a whopping 11.7!). The problem is that this term "biologically productive global hectare" is based only on current technology. How many hectares are biologically productive (that is, usable for agriculture or similar purposes) and how much they produce will undoubtedly change in the future. As the Quiz authors admit in their explanatory page, "Technology can alter the productivity of land, or the efficiency with which resources are used to produce goods and services."

But, you might say, we don't know technology will improve, so we have to assume current technology. I don't buy that, because market economies create powerful incentives for technological innovation. But even if we assume current technology, the Eco-Footprint still underestimates the productivity of the planet, because "the calculations assume that the technologies used in resource exploitation are the average of those prevailing in the world today." Remember that the incredibly low-tech agricultural techniques used in many underdeveloped nations of the world are included in that average. In short, the Eco-Footprint tells us nothing about what the planet's productivity would be if currently available technologies became more widespread.

In addition, as Julian Simon argued in his book _The Ultimate Resource_, "resource" is not a physically defined entity. A resource is whatever human beings have found a way to use productively. Things not currently perceived as resources will be so perceived with future technologies. (Think about the value of silica before the invention of silicon chips and fiber optics.) This is yet another reason why the fixed pie assumptions underlying the Eco-Footprint approach just don't fly.

So eat, drink, drive, live in a big house, blast your A/C, turn up the TV, and be merry.

ADDENDUM: In case you want to find out *your* eco-footprint, you might need these conversions:
Area: 1 sq m = around 10 sq ft
Fuel efficiency: 2 km/lit = around1 mile/gal
Thanks to Ravi Marur for pointing me to the Quiz.

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