[Marxism] THE PROBLEM WITH ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINTS AND PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 25 14:19:41 MST 2019


(This is from Giorgios Kallis's new book "Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong 
and Why Environmentalists Should Care". Kallis is a leading exponent of 
"degrowth" but his problems with statements like "Humanity uses the 
equivalent of 1.7 Earths" or "On August humanity will have used nature's 
resource budget for the entire year" are unmistakably a dig at fellow 
degrowth advocate Jason Hickel, whose articles are filled with such 
references. I will be reviewing Kallis's book for CounterPunch and will 
certainly try to weigh the differences. Frankly, I find it difficult to 
think of making the case for degrowth without such references.)

THE PROBLEM WITH ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINTS AND PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

The "ecological footprint" is a calculation of how much land it would 
take to produce the goods and services we consume and to absorb the 
waste and pollution we create. The indicator is useful because it 
reminds us that what we do "here" has impacts "there": the environmental 
costs of our actions are shifted in space and time, and the foot print 
is a measure of this shift. But the indicator, and especially the way it 
is communicated, has many problems. Forget for the moment the scientific 
acrobatics necessary for turning everything into its land-use equivalent 
My concern here is with statements such as, "Humanity uses the 
equivalent of 1.7 Earths," or, "On August humanity will have used 
nature's resource budget for the entire year." No matter how good the 
intentions, this framing reproduces a Malthusian vision of a limited 
earth.46 We are too numerous, and we consume too much. But who is this 
"we"? And why do "we" consume too much? The footprint message makes for 
headlines but it is apolitical, as it puts us all in the same boat. It 
is also disempowering, as our supposed overshooting comes and goes every 
year, but the world continues to turn.

The "planetary boundaries" framework is scientifically more 
sophisticated, but it too can reproduce the myth of a limited world. 
There are nine boundaries of the earth system, planetary scientists tell 
us, and if we transgress them we risk abrupt, catastrophic, nonlinear 
change" (climate change is one result; there's also the extinction of 
species and the loss of biodiversity, which could collapse food chains; 
pollution from phosphorous and nitrogen; the ozone hole; and 
acidification of the oceans, which could lead to drastic reduction in 
fish stocks). Supposedly, there is nothing political about these 
boundaries, which are descriptions of the way the world is. We can 
release so much phosphorous before polluting ecosystems and so much 
carbon before bringing on a certain rise in global temperature. But as I 
have argued, there is nothing natural in framing such facts as limits or 
"boundaries." They are boundaries only if we want to label them as such 
(and I agree we should), but there is also no reason why we can't 
continue living on a hotter earth or survive in a world with polluted 
ecosystems. Life would be worse for many, perhaps, but it would be life 
nonetheless. The boundaries, as Kate Raworth argues,49 are not given; 
they are boundaries of a collective good life, which we should choose.



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