Posted by: brian | July 12, 2007

You know what they say about big feet….

Friend Mary and I had a brief exchange about Norman Borlaug, a U of M alumnus and nominal father of the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century that radically increased agricultural food production in the developing world. I mentioned that he’d been mentioned in a recent meeting I attended at the University’s St. Paul campus.

There was much discussion of opportunities to make it the “Green Campus” – reduced turfgrass, more native plantings/greater biodiversity, stormwater management stuff, and so forth. A comment was made (tongue in cheek) about Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” and how we could position it as “another Green Revolution” from said location. Then someone pointed out that Borlaug’s version was very nearly antithetical to the current ideas, because it intensified agriculture (more chemicals, more monoculture in the landscape, and so forth). Then it was suggested that the new effort could be the “Real Green Revolution.” This was all said amid laughs, and in fun, but it does give one pause, and perhaps more than anything highlights the changing values of the late 20th century.

But you know, I really like eating.

And she responded,

Oh yeah, he was *definitely* a product of the thinking of his time, but what he did with the knowledge available, and how hard he worked on behalf of people in parts of the world that were largely ignored on the basis of them not being here — wow. I get tired just reading about what he’s gotten up to.

And I got to thinking about the idea of one’s ecological footprint. [The latter link points to a PDF file. In the unlikely event that you lack a PDF reader, (1) you’ve been living under a rock for 5 years, and (2) you need one. Download Adobe Acrobat Reader.] Some of you may be familiar with the Ecological Footprint Quiz. It calculates (roughly) how many acres of “biologically productive” land are required to sustain your lifestyle. I’ve had friends score as low as 8 and as high as the mid-50s. My score falls right around 30. The average American requires 24 acres. [Sidebar: Check out this interesting “Kid’s Version” of the ecological footprint quiz. Careful, some of the questions might go off.]

According to the quiz, “Worldwide, there exist 4.5 biologically productive acres per person,” and if everyone lived like me, “we would need 7.1 planets.” (I’m assuming that those planets would all be identical to Earth.)

I tried answering in several different ways. For example, if I gave up my car and took public transit or my feet as my primary modes of locomotion, and if I ate less meat, and if I minimized my consumption of heavily processed foods shipped from parts unknown and harvested by various ethnic types, and if I radically altered my consumption of material goods and the disposal of the attendant wastes…. What is the lowest score I could achieve while still having a “decent” standard of living (by my admittedly American standards)? I knocked it down to about 10. If everyone lived like that version of me, we’d need 2.3 planets.

So I started thinking, if there are 4.5 acres per person, how many acres does that mean we have in total? Taking a total population of 6,607,578,032 (or 6.6 billion, for easier figuring), I come up with 29,700,000,000 acres. So how many people would the planet support, if we all lived like Americans, and averaged 24 acres per person? By my math, 1,237,500,000.

Let’s say that hypothetically the bloated, over-consumptive American lifestyle were brought under control, and we could all live on 12 acres (aiming a little above my personal “idealized” score of 10). At that rate, the Earth would support 2,475,000,000 people.

The answers necessary to achieve a score of 4 indicate a level of privation that surely rivals that of the most poverty-stricken of this nation: no motorized travel, a strict vegetarian diet derived exclusively from local sources, and 4 people living in a residence of less than 1,000 square feet.

I have two words for the Chinese, the Indians, Africans, Catholics, much of South America, and all of Indonesia: STOP FUCKING!



  1. Oh yeah, that last statement isn’t remotely inflammatory….

    I can’t remember what my score on that test was! But I do recall feeling kind of fake about it, because some of the questions asked me to estimate stuff that I had no notion about. Like how much trash ya produce as compared with your neighbors. ??! I don’t keep a running total, there.

    You know, you and I have a really odd range of conversations. This particular one might actually fool people into thinking we’re smart or deep or something!

    As long as I’m typin’ up a Sybil-comment, let me add…this other blog of mine is possibly more indicative of how mind-blowingly annoying I can be on an esoteric topic:
    (but I have help w/it)

  2. Nonsense! It’s not at all inflammatory. Well, okay… maybe it is. But they make an ointment for that, don’t they? And I do love inflaming … stuff.

    Yeah, the quiz is a bit wobbly about the edges.

    Oh, and we are so not smart or deep or anything. Then again, considering the range of readership here….

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