August 5, 2009

Relative Impact, the lessons of more and less

littlefp.jpgIn my sustainable communities class we are exploring in depth the relative impact of the lifestyles and economies of the countries on our voyage. In particular we are focusing on a key indicator of sustainability known as an ecological footprint. An ecological footprint is the amount of biologically productive land and water (measured in hectares) required to provide our needs and process our wastes. At these links you can find out your own footprint or learn the sophisticated methodology behind the concept. One thing we have clearly learned on this voyage is that not everyone has the same impact. In Egypt, we all had a look (perhaps at times it was a stare) at people living on far less than most Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, and other folks in the so-called "developed" world. We also learned some other lessons about living life to the fullest, regardless of your so-called standard of living. It's hard to summarize all that we learned given the limits of words in a blog entry, but I'll give it a try. Admittedly this is an over-simplification, but I hope to convey the essence of our lessons on relative impact.

In Egypt we learned that people who have next to nothing are often the most willing to share everything they have. Ironically, it seems back home the folks who have the most are often the last to share. In addition, and this is the main point, people living on far less than we do still have rich, meaningful, bountiful, and complex lives. More money and stuff clearly doesn't equal more laughter, good will, and happiness. It's not that the folks in Egypt wouldn't like to have more money and stuff. They would. But in the meantime, this lack of money and material goods clearly doesn't get in the way of living well.

Here's another lesson we've learned. People who are not the cause of the problem sometimes are hit the hardest by the problem. For example, while Egyptians contribute very little to greenhouse gases, because of the impact of climate change on the Nile River Valley (the economic and cultural heart of this country), they are disproportionately suffering from the collective impacts of all of our inefficient, polluting ways (by "our" I'm referring to the 20% of us in the developed world who produce 80% of the greenhouse gases). Here's a message that Egyptians would like us to carry to the rest of the world: please consider them and the impacts of our collective choices when we develop energy policies, purchase a new car (which they can never afford), buy a refrigerator, or elect a president. It may seem hard to imagine, but their lives are directly impacted by our poor choices. What is true in Egypt in terms of disproportionate impact is also true, by the way, for indigenous people living for example in the Amazon Basin or in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, back home, many folks in the U.S. are skipping through life, often unsatisfied with what they have in spite of their HUGE ecological footprint. If everyone on the planet had the same footprint that we have, then we would need another half dozen planets. Last time I checked we only had one. When you travel around the world, the words "we" and "them" seem to lose their meaning. But if we want to make a distinction along these lines, perhaps we should remember the words of Pogo. "We have met the enemy, and they are us." I'm as guilty as the rest of us in the developed world, so I'm in no place to cast the first stone.

I will cast out this idea however. While some in the 'sophisticated, educated North' seem to think we need to teach those people in the less developed, ignorant South a thing or two, well, I beg to differ. Egypt and other developing nations do have a lot of work to do in order to provide a higher standard of living for their people, and they could use our help. Yet when those of us on this voyage experienced the lives of the people in Egypt, we found that they had so much more to teach and offer us. It was a simple yet critical lesson about really appreciating what you have and living a life where less can actually mean more. Perhaps in the midst of looking at their daily reality, we actually saw a hazy reflection of ourselves, and in doing so received a far clearer glimpse into a profound truth to be learned for our own lives.

And for those of you interested in the gory details of relative planetary impact, in addition to the sites noted above, check out this little chart that tells the story quite clearly. It shows the per capital ecological footprint (in hectares) for each country on our voyage. 2.2 hectares/person is the global biological capacity. As you can see, before we hit Egypt, every country we had visited is operating in excess of their "fair share." The final act, the USA, will be the grand finale in our wake up call about relative impact.


P.S. No lecture in the next entry, just some favorite photos from Egypt. Stay tuned!

Posted by rohwedde at August 5, 2009 12:54 AM