Defining one planet living

The premise of this blog is that lifestyles in affluent countries are unsustainable. If we want to end poverty in the developing world without destroying the environment, we need to reduce our consumption. But by how much? What’s the target?

It’s fairly easy to set a benchmark for sustainability. A sustainable lifestyle would be within the planet’s limits, and to be a just lifestyle too it would need to be one that everybody could have. To work that out, you need to know how much of the planet is available to each of us.

All of life’s processes require land. We need land to grow the plants and raise the animals that we eat, to source the timber and cotton and other resources that we use, and to absorb the carbon we emit. That land requirement for each of us is our ‘ecological footprint’. (The image below is from the New Zealand ministry of the environment. It’s not accurate in the proportions, but does illustrate the various components quite nicely)

NZ footprint

Not all of the earth’s land is available to us to produce the things we need. Once you have subtracted deserts and mountains and so on, you get a total of 12 billion hectares of productive land. That’s the total planetary space we have to play in. Now we divide that between the world’s population of 7 billion, and we get an earth share of 1.7 global hectares (gha) each.

“If everyone on earth adopted an equitable 1.7 gha lifestyle, the entire human family would be living within the means of nature” say William Rees and Jennie Moore in Living within a Fair Share Ecological Footprint, which I’m reading at the moment.

The good news is that over half the world already lives at or below that benchmark figure – most of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The bad news is that many others are a long way above it – European average footprints are around 5 or 6 hectares, American and Australian footprints higher still at 8 or 9. “To live fairly within the earth’s means” say Rees and Moore, “Europeans should be implementing policies that will reduce their per-capita ecological footprints by two thirds. Average Americans and Australians should be planning an 80% reduction.”

That’s the challenge, and it’s considerable.

There are a couple of things to note here. First, the simple calculation above assumes that all the world’s productive land should be used by humanity, and we might want to leave some for the other species that share our planet. And that 1.7 gha allowance depends on population, which is increasing. As population rises, the amount of productive land is spread more thin. If we reach 10 billion, we’ll only have 1.2 gha each to work with.

It’s also worth mentioning, since people are looking for things to object to, that an equitable 1.7 gha share is a benchmark figure. There can and will be degrees of inequality around it, and nobody is suggesting any kind of legally binding one planet share or global communism to manage it. But it is what we need to aim for. If we want to continue to live a 7 hectare lifestyle in a world where 1.7 is the fair share, (since I’m writing on the train), we’re like a guy on a packed commuter train who wants a seat for his bag.


12 Comments on “Defining one planet living”

  1. Tegan Tallullah May 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    For a while I’ve been really interested in the One Planet Living idea, and that’s my personal goal, although I’m hopelessly far from it at the moment. What I didn’t know was how that translated into actual numbers and hectares, so thanks for the succinct and informative post!

  2. dichasium May 14, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour 1976 says ‘If you had five acres of good well-drained land, you could support a family of, say, six people and have occasional surpluses to sell.’ That’s about 2 hectares for six people, equating to about 1.7 hectares for four to five people. Presumably, the ‘defining one planet living” must be including much more than John Seymour was. I have often thought, that unless one lives at a very basic subsistence level we cannot know if we are taking somebody elses share. How will we ever come to a fair share when we think some people are ‘worth’ more than others?

    • Jeremy May 15, 2013 at 8:27 am #

      I’ve not read Self-Sufficiency, though I remember my parents had it when I was little. I presume he’s referring to food, but the overall footprint of 1.7 hectares includes the land it would take to absorb CO2 from our energy use, and land used to grow timber and cotton and so on. I don’t think you could provide everything for six people on five acres.

  3. AdrianM May 14, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    You make me laugh, This idea won’t float. Next you will be suggesting a one child policy to curb global population.
    Give me a break, No one willingly will give up their standard of living by 80% as you suggest they need to.

    The simpler solution is the 4 horsemen approach, war, famine, plague and pestilence. This is what works at keeping our numbers down.

    Has worked wonders for us and we are still here. Check out what happened to standards of living after the black death, ravaged Europe.

    • Jeremy May 15, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      Thanks for your constructive and compassionate response Adrian.

  4. lunny06 May 15, 2013 at 1:05 am #

    Reblogged this on Happy Simply – lifestyle model & education project and commented:
    I think this is an amazing summary of what the Happy, simply. – a lifestyle model and education project is trying to address in one regard – having less impact on the world. The other major aspect I hope to display and demonstrate with Happy, simply is how we can be happier with ‘less’. Shrinking our area need of arable land need not be disastrous or for the worst, I believe it is is for the better – individually, as a community, environmentally and globally.
    Thanks Jeremy for another wonderful blog from Make Wealth History!

    • Jeremy May 15, 2013 at 8:28 am #

      Funny how you should appear right below Adrian’s comment that no one would ever give up their lifestyle by 80%!


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