Limiting Humanity’s Ecological Footprint

Limit humanity’s ‘throughput’ — the energy and resources used in our planetary home and the resulting wastes flowing out — to decrease our ecological footprint.
By Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill
May 19, 2014
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The ecological footprint is a useful tool for understanding the flow of materials and energy though an economy.
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The way we run the global economy is causing long-term environmental, societal and economic damage, and it’s not improving anyone’s life. Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill urge us to shift focus from the symptoms to the cause in Enough Is Enough (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013). In a world of finite resources, our economic goal should be the wisdom of enough rather than the madness of more. The following excerpt from “Enough Throughput” provides suggestions for limiting throughput and, in turn, our ecological footprint.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Enough Is Enough.

Throughput and the Ecological Footprint 

Whether a mansion in Monaco, an apartment in Argentina, or a cottage in Cambodia, every household has a measurable metabolism. Materials, from trash cans to ceiling fans, from apple pies to French fries, flow into the household from external sources. Each household also obtains supplies of energy, such as electricity, sunshine, and natural gas, from the outside world. Members of the household consume the materials and use the energy to support their lifestyles. And finally, the household completes the metabolic process by expelling wastes to the environment through carbon dioxide emissions, wastewater discharge, and trash disposal. This metabolism, the flow of materials and energy and the emission of wastes, can be called the throughput of the household.

At the household scale, getting a handle on throughput is relatively easy, even without dragging everything into the front yard like the families in Material World. An audit of household throughput requires tracking how much stuff is coming in and how much waste is flowing out (including exports to the self-storage unit). It also requires documenting energy consumption. For the most part, an auditor would need to collect receipts from shopping, extract data from utility bills, and do some arithmetic—a straightforward, although somewhat tedious, task. But what about a really big household like the economy?

The word “economy” actually derives from two Greek words, oikos (household) and nomos (management). Economics is literally the management of the human household. The larger the household, the more difficult it is to analyze, but researchers have devised useful tools for tracking throughput at broad scales. Material flow analysis is one such tool—a systematic way to assess the flow of materials through an economy. Rooted in the law of conservation of matter, material flow analysis uses mass balance equations to track the flow of materials from environmental sources, through consumptive processes in the economy, and back to the environment in waste streams.

Like a household in which the family rents three self-storage units to manage its overflow of stuff, an economy can also have an overactive metabolism. Material flow analysis suggests that the metabolism of the global economy is much higher than it used to be. Humanity now uses eight times more material resources (by weight) than it did a century ago. Researchers have concluded that “if the present metabolic rate is maintained, there will ultimately be constraints for development. These may occur as resource scarcities at the supply side, or as environmental degradation at the disposal side.”

This conclusion resembles what’s being communicated by the ecological footprint, another useful tool for understanding the flow of materials and energy through an economy. Estimates of the global economy’s footprint suggest that humanity is consuming resources and emitting wastes at a rate that is 50 percent faster than what’s sustainable.

How Do We Limit Humanity’s Ecological Footprint?

Humanity sits in a precarious position. The global household is consuming too much stuff, and it’s time to cut back. Success will likely require a combination of both direct and indirect policies, which may impinge on personal freedom to some degree. But regardless of the mix of policies, there are four prerequisites for moving forward.

First and foremost, we need to achieve a more equitable distribution of income and wealth. As throughput-limiting policies take effect, available resources will decline. When this occurs, each person must be assured access to a fair share. What would happen if we maintained the current distribution of natural resources (and the goods and services that flow from them) in a scenario of limited resource use? The wealthy would capture an ever-greater proportion of the supply, and the poor would suffer. Therefore, any policy limiting the use of a resource must explicitly address how the value embodied in that resource can be fairly distributed among all citizens.

Second, we need a comprehensive monitoring system. Tracking economic throughput (and assessing whether that throughput is sustainable) requires good data collection and analysis systems. To see why, consider a limit on the use of fossil fuels. Such a limit would likely stimulate a significant increase in the production of biofuels, which could have unintended consequences on land use and food prices. Without monitoring, we’d have no way of tracking these indirect impacts, let alone the direct impacts of burning less fossil fuel. The information provided by monitoring programs could also help refine policies (e.g., changing the cap in a cap-and-share scheme in the event of unforeseen consequences), which would be very useful, as we undoubtedly will have to tinker with new policies to get them right. A good starting point for a nation to monitor throughput is to adopt green accounting procedures, such as the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA 2003). SEEA 2003 provides a framework for consistent analysis of the contribution of environmental resources to the economy, and the impact of the economy on the environment.

Third, we need to adopt an incremental approach. Imposition of resource-limiting policies would require considerable cultural and institutional changes across society. Applying such policies incrementally would allow space for people to alter their behavior and restructure economic institutions.

Fourth, we need to improve cooperation and coordination across all levels of government. The power to regulate the extraction and consumption of resources primarily resides at the national level, but the impacts from the use of such resources are often experienced globally. For example, oil supplies and forests fall under the jurisdiction of nations, but the management of these resources affects global common goods, such as climate and biodiversity. In addition, if one nation enacts limits on throughput, there’s a real risk that capital and industry could flee to other countries that have not imposed such limits. A nation trying to establish sensible resource-use policies may face difficulties if other nations continue to pursue growth-based policies.

Resource limits, therefore, should ideally be set from the top down, starting at the global level and filtering through international regions, nations, and local communities. But the power to manage resources within these limits should reside with individuals and organizations at the local level. Such a process will require close cooperation among nations and coordination among smaller jurisdictions. Even though humanity has struggled to achieve such cooperation and coordination, encouraging precedents exist. The Montreal Protocol successfully restricted the use of chemicals that deplete stratospheric ozone (ozone protects life on earth from harmful UV radiation). Adoption and enforcement of the Montreal Protocol’s rules required intense negotiations and buy-in from the international community.

Limiting throughput to sustainable levels requires fundamental alterations to the economic landscape. These alterations will no doubt come with costs, but the greater costs to fear are the costs of doing nothing. Is it worth the risk of wrecking our global household by cramming it full of more stuff than is necessary for people to live good lives? It will be a challenge to convince entrenched, pro-growth elites to accept needed changes, but maybe the 88 Percent can tackle the challenge.

Most people have heard of the 99 Percent—the self-proclaimed group of people fed up with the exorbitance of the top 1 percent of income earners—but who are the 88 Percent? In a survey of residents (eighteen and older) of the state of Oregon, 88 percent of respondents agreed that the United States “would be better off if we all consumed less.” It’s hard to find any topic in politics on which 88 percent of people can agree—that’s a strong majority calling for enough, and a solid base of support for maintaining a healthy household metabolism.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in A World of Finite Resources by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013. Purchase this book from our store: Enough Is Enough.


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