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How Many Earths? (…A Personal Experiment) July 3, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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“…The world has too many people.”


It was late one night and a friend from #iranelection and I were having another online chat in our ongoing discussion of: What is Wrong with Our World And How To Save It. Or whether this is even possible, under the circumstances.

She didn’t seem too optimistic. “There aren’t enough resources to go around. We’re doomed to fight over what’s left. There’s no way the planet can support us – there’s just too many people.”

It wasn’t a conclusion either of us relished, but I was particularly reluctant to accept it. For most of history, I argued, there have been far fewer people on the planet than there were now, and yet those people scarcely behaved better towards one another as a result. Looking at the historical record, there have been more wars, more genocides, more atrocities in the past than now – despite today’s vastly increased population. Were we truly doomed to have this trend catastrophically reverse?

Still, I had to admit she could be right. Logically there had to be some number of people which the planet simply could not support. How could I know for sure that this threshold hadn’t already been crossed?


I wasn’t about to capitulate the point so easily, though. “Too many people for what, exactly?” I asked. “To support at a minimum level for survival, or at the standard we’re used to in the West?”

“The minimum for survival,” she clarified.

I spotted a contradiction. “That doesn’t make sense. Our society is already using far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources, so according to your statement the majority of the world’s people shouldn’t be able to survive at all. But obviously they are somehow. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there, they would be dead.” (And, as I realized later, the population would hardly continue to increase…)

“Well,” she conceded, “I guess I should distinguish between ‘surviving’ and ‘healthy’.”

…The conversation moved on to other things, but over the next few days my mind kept returning to this question. If we could take the planet’s resources and divide them equally among all the people on Earth, what sort of living standard would result? Would it be one just barely adequate for survival, which few in the West would ever accept given our current luxury? Or, even if we couldn’t each own three cars, a sprawling house and an SUV, would it be moderately comfortable at least?


About a week later I sat down at my computer and did some research. A bit of web-surfing revealed the ecological footprint calculator as the most practical tool to answer my question. By analyzing my consumption habits, it would tell me how my own lifestyle compared to the Earth’s carrying capacity: if everyone on the planet lived as I did, how many Earths would we need? Ideally, this number would be 1 or less (an answer of over 1 would mean that my lifestyle was unsustainable ecologically.)

After glancing over a few I settled on the Ecological Footprint Quiz by the Center for Sustainable Economy (user-friendly, but comprehensive enough to give a meaningful result.) I plugged in five pages’ worth of personal data, clicked the “Next” button and waited…

“If everyone on the planet lived my lifestyle, we would need: 2.11 Earths.”


My reactions, in order:

1. Ouch. “Pride goes before a fall,” I thought resignedly to myself. I had always viewed my own lifestyle as quite ecologically conscious (was vegetarian, recycled almost everything, used public transit or walked…). And yet I was using over two times my fair share of the planet. Was it even possible, in our society, to lead a “1-Earth” lifestyle? Maybe even the best of us have “sinned and fallen short of sustainable consumption patterns”? It didn’t look good.

2. Reflecting for a moment, though, I grew rather more optimistic. After all, my own lifestyle was nowhere near a “minimum survival” state – it was relatively simple, perhaps, but comfortable and healthy. I was satisfied with it, at any rate. Could my own consumption of resources simply be made more efficient to eliminate the extra 1.11 Earths?

3. …Probably not, I realized, looking at the “Take Action” webpage. There weren’t that much I could personally do make my footprint smaller. I could, perhaps, switch to fluorescent lightbulbs (which I did), consume fewer dairy products, buy more local foods, and install a low-flow showerhead. But, let’s face it, that wouldn’t cut my resource consumption in half – at the most it would make a dent in the total. Was there any way out of the problem?

4. Over the next several months, I began to realize there was. But it wasn’t a step I could take alone. Many of the survey questions had dealt with factors I couldn’t individually change, either as a renter (low-flow toilets, solar panels on the roof, the temperature of our apartment building) or a citizen (the source of our electricity, availability of light-rail public transit, and so on). At the same time, these were the “biggies” that had the largest impact on my society’s collective footprint. If these “constants” could be made more efficient, then everyone in my area would automatically have a far smaller ecological footprint – best of all,with no effort required on their part!
Obviously I couldn’t just go install a solar panel on my apartment’s roof, or singlehandedly run a light-rail transit system through my city’s downtown core. But I could certainly join a municipal citizens’ group that worked to bring such changes about – and it would undoubtedly have a much larger impact than driving myself nuts trying to drink soymilk or take two-minute showers. 😉

If we can make it easy, convenient, and “the norm” for people to “be green”, they probably will be by default…

So I found my local group and joined it. (It’s actually quite an agreeable coincidence that a municipal election is approaching in any case, so there are quite a few opportunities to take action…)

I recommend that everyone who really wants to help save our planet do the same. Oh, and take the quiz. It’s quite eye-opening. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

P.S. A footnote to the story: my friend also took the quiz, and ended up scoring 2.35. As others pointed out, this is really not bad considering the average for North America is 6 (!!!) Earths. This obviously doesn’t mean that either of us can sit back and feel smug. But it’s hopeful, anyway…



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