You Know What They Say About a Man with a Big Footprint

… it’s even bigger, I’m sure, than I’m aware. Take for instance my spatial footprint.

I share a three bedroom house with my lovely fiancée. Although it’s a subdivided plot, it’s large enough with a fair sized yard around it. We own a four door sedan that, while considered “medium” in size, its dimensions cannot be significantly smaller than the big ol’ Kingwood (perhaps a foot in length, nothing in width). In the heavily car-dependent suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, I’m more or less forced to either drive this car to most places or experience long and indirect public transport routes or impractical foot travel.

At work, while my personal cubical is a little smaller than a car park space, my space requirements are automatically doubled for the sake of parking the vehicle.

Then there’s the consumables. Without an in-depth research project, I’m unlikely to be able to give accurate numbers, however the food I eat had to be grown somewhere (with a lot of waste along the way), the water had to be captured and stored, and then there is cotton and other fibres, plastics and fuel; all of which were grown, mined or/and processed somewhere.

And finally my person portion of other common infrastructure…

While I make many steps to reduce my spatial footprint (as I also do my energy and waste footprints – all to be explored in the coming months), it’s undeniable that this footprint is still large, as are my other footprints (eg. emissions, resource use etc), especially when compared against much of the global population.

I am just one of 22 million Australians and while I reflect the median Australian, I am also aware that with inequality how it is in “the lucky country” I still probably reflect an above average per capita footprint. That said, on the back of cheap fuel, imports are among the most competitive consumable on the shelves, so in all honesty, class comparison is unlikely to make much sense. Therefore, each Australian’s own a much bigger pair of shoes than we realise; something that could be said about much of the developed world.

Why point this out?

I bulked the other day when I heard that the projected global population for the end of this century has been upped; now potentially reaching 10 billion people! I thought nine billion was worrying enough, but 10 billion just seemed unimaginable. If 10 billion people are likely to acquire a humane standard of living, we seriously need rethink how big our footprints are.

You can either have large footprints on a sparser world or smaller footprints within a global community of high density. You simply cannot have both.

That we produce enough food to feed the current population, but a billion still go hungry should be enough of an “early” warning siren that perhaps our footprints are already too big (it’s easy to assume this merely the fault of distribution and waste, but nothing could be more inaccurate).

That is the uncomfortable reality we face ahead. Either we work to develop economies that prosper on a stable population level now (ie. prosperity without growth) or we trim the fat from our heavy western feet and take small steps in an increasingly populated world (inevitably we will need to limit population at some level).

The latter would of course mean, for instance, less personal transport, higher density living, increasingly efficient food sources (ie. reducing meat content and level of processing) and some radical changes to how we treat potable water; basically cutting back on many of the things we tend to intertwine (incorrectly in my opinion) with our liberties.

At some point there must be a difficult choice that, as global citizens, we must make collectively; either we reduce population growth or reduce our footprints.

Compounding this problem is the developing world who, rightly, aspires to increase their footprint to experience many of the simple, humanistic principles that we have long taken for granted. Without clear leadership and a new wave of innovation, their growing footprint will be as large and poorly designed as our own. This will only put further stress on already buckling natural resources.

As always, there are opportunities; it’s not all doom-and-gloom. However, we must first be honest with ourselves and own up to this conundrum of our personal footprints and growing global population. We need to make the hard choice now, between a big world or big footprints.

I feel that it’s a safe conclusion the former is the likely choice by most, thereby setting up some foundation for genuine efficiency. Investment in R&D to reduce our personal footprint will be one of the greatest safeguards against the erosion of a humane standard of living for each member of our species. Such innovations would be a better gift to the developing world than any amount of financial aid alone ever could. In turn, their prosperity doesn’t come at the cost of further degradation of fundamental natural resources.

The biggest hurdle however, is to decouple our footprint in the developed world, from what we consider to be our liberties.

I’m often making the point that personal vehicles are a thing meant for yesteryear; before the invention of peak hour traffic congestion. Yet, more and more people are choosing to upgrade to SUV’s and a car as large as mine is now considered to be medium sized. Moving to a new suburb, sold as having “a touch of the countryside within a short commute to a CBD” quickly loses that rural feel and short commute when we all move there together and quickly falls prey to the monotony of suburban sprawl.

We need to cut ties to this illusion of the low density world we left behind in the twentieth century and develop new paradigms that are able to deliver dignity to the standard of living to all those alive and sustainable prosperity that can be transferred to those who follow. This is true liberty and the most important change we can make to improve how we all live.

And it all starts by admitted that such large footprints are ungainly.

[Article also published on The Sustainable Cities Collective]


2 thoughts on “You Know What They Say About a Man with a Big Footprint

    1. Exactly. In this way, I’m surprised that the pro-industry folks are the loudest deniers as the future is, when looked at from this angle, wonderfully enriched with new avenues for innovation, job growth and money flow. What it comes down to is that hording of wealth and waste creation must be stopped. The “we all wanna be millionaires” mentality must be abolished. Ultimately, with a healthy flowing economy, we’ll all have a good quality standard of living and work/life balance. It wouldn’t be consumer based however, nor would there be the super-rich. There is potential for a great future and to truly become a mature custodial species of the planet, rather than just another invasive species.

      No, I’m not aware of them; I’ll have a look through them (thanks for the heads up).

      You may be interested in a soon to be live project that I and Mike are developing called Generation Adaptation (Gen[A] for short): the beta is live here:

      Basically we hope it will develop into a hub for information sharing and connection between the various forward thinking initiatives around the place to build a strong global community engaged to meeting the challenges of the 21st century.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s