Ed. note: A slightly different version of this piece was published on the author’s blog Regreen the Planet! on 25 January, 2021.
Depending on where you live in the developed world, you will likely be living a three to six planet lifestyle. In the UK, we are, on average living a three planet lifestyle. While pretty much everyone has heard of their carbon footprint, it’s very uncommon to hear anyone talk about their ecological footprint, and yet it is an equally important part of the environmental emergency.
The ecological footprint is calculated based on an overall use of resources – how much of the earth’s biologically productive space is used to sustain each person’s lifestyle. In the UK, we use on average 4.2 gha (global hectares) – three times more than the world can sustain (current population levels suggest a maximum of 1.6 gha per person).
Just by dint of living in a developed country, one’s ecological footprint automatically rises. Mexicans who cross the border to the US see their ecological footprint increase from 2.6gha, to 8.0gha, due to the more consumer driven lifestyle.
The growing ecological footprint
Barely a month goes by without another report coming out with dire statistics about wildlife decline. There’s been a 60% loss of wildlife in 50 years, while 50% of Borneo’s forest, and 17% of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. The list goes on. It’s not just individual species that are critically endangered but the living, beating heart of planet earth itself. The complex and astonishing ecosystems – our life-support systems — are in serious ill-health. While for now, for the most part humans may still be surviving (albeit for many in increasingly polluted, and inhospitable conditions), the quality and meaning of our lives is being depleted with every loss to the natural world.
A lot has changed in just a few decades. During the last 50 years, humanity’s ecological footprint has increased by nearly 190%, indicating a growing unbalance in the human-environment relationship. This trajectory isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. While there is much talk about cutting carbon emissions, less consideration is given to the depletion of ecosystems, and the fragile state of planetary health, following decades of intensive – and extensive – mining for resources, industrial agriculture and construction. Now, just 3% of the earth’s ecosystems remain intact.
Our ability to live within the planet’s biological limits requires not only a major rethink in how we produce and distribute ‘things’, but a change to our lifestyles, one that uses fewer resources. Assuming that we can start to halt the harm caused to the living planet by mining yet more resources, is a red herring. Vast amounts of lithium will be required to power millions of electric cars. Copper production – an essential part of renewable energy infrastructure, is expected to expand by 500% in the next 30 years. The rush to mine is already affecting farmers in Chile, who happen to live next to areas of wilderness rich in lithium, and Native American land such as the Oak Flats of Arizona, or the wilderness at Thacker Pass, Nevada, are threatened by proposals for mines.
In this series of articles, I will explore what a one planet lifestyle might actually entail, and look at examples of countries, or people who are consuming within the earth’s biological capacity.
Since a large part of our consumption comes from our homes (around 30%), how we live, and with whom, are hugely significant factors in living more frugally. In the UK, around 8 million people live alone, while the average occupancy per household stands at just under two. Such small households are uncommon in countries living one planet lifestyles. In Nepal, a country with a low ecological footprint, the average occupancy per household is 4.6.
Shared spaces – or sometimes known as “co-living”, allows for a more efficient use of resources. Clearly it’s more expedient to heat a space for a group of four, than say four individuals in separate spaces. Add to that resources and energy burn for our ever increasing list of appliances – fridges, freezers, dishwashers, televisions, washing machines, tumble dryers, televisions, laptops, etc and the footprint rapidly grows.
So how could shared spaces, and shared facilities work in the developed world where we have become accustomed to private spaces, and having ownership of almost everything we use? One way is to start sharing some spaces, for example, laundry facilities. New apartment blocks could not only incorporate laundry rooms, but also drying spaces. In the Mediterranean, buildings often have washing lines on the roof — a much more eco-friendly way of drying clothes than the tumble dryer — one of the most energy hungry domestic appliances. While this approach may not necessarily reduce the number of laundry loads per person — (although potentially, having a washing machine located in a less convenient location might have that effect) — at least it does reduce the number of appliances. In a matter of decades, we have transitioned from shared washing areas in villages – or hand washing at home, to launderettes, and now to private ownership of a washing machine. With each transition, we move further away from one planet living.
Another obvious area where savings in resources could be made, is with shared cooking facilities. In small villages in developing countries like Liberia, communities share a fire and a meal. This idea could be translated in BBQ areas for neighbours to congregate and share in the summer months. For blocks of flats, with multiple single occupancy dwellings, there is scope for shared kitchens. Instead of 20 cookers, maybe 5-10 would be enough. Even new housing estates could be designed cleverly to allow for shared kitchens. Not only would this be a better use of resources and space, — and relieve those that live in studios from the discomfort of eating, sleeping and cooking all in the same space, but it offers an important way for people to connect with their neighbours. Sharing food has always been a way for people to come together.
A better use of resources, and stronger communities
Loneliness, even before the pandemic struck, has been a creeping problem during the past half century. Families have become more fragmented – and more wealth, plus reliance on the welfare state in times of need, as well as the rise of the car, has meant that neighbourhood connectivity has declined. If we start to “place make” (an architectural term for new developments to build nice places to live) — and integrate more communal spaces, there are wins for the environment, but also for community. There is no reason why new building developments could not also include communal green space for growing vegetables, even in urban environments. Encouraging people to be outdoors would also have other benefits such as mental and physical health and help reconnect us with our food in an age of supermarket aisles filled with processed foods.
What examples are there of communal living in the UK?
These measures will almost certainly not be enough to achieve one planet living, but eco-villages do come closer. In eco-villages, groups of people live together in a low-impact way. Dwellings tend to be made from local or recycled materials. Water is drawn from springs or harvested from the rain, and firewood, grown on site, or collected locally is burnt to provide heat. For other electricity needs, solar panels are usually the main source. A large part of food needed for residents is cultivated onsite organically, and cooking and meals are often shared. Such living is probably the closest example in the developed world we have to the subsistence type of living that was commonplace before the industrial revolution.
Sharing the planet’s finite resources, and being careful and frugal with our consumption is a key part of one planet living. In the next articles in this series I will be looking at transport’s role in one planet living, as well as our use of raw materials when it comes to building and energy. Stay tuned!
Read more at Regreentheplanet.blog