Off on the Wrong Foot

Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?

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Jesse Ausubel Announced as 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award Winner

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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Fighting to Breathe

New WHO Report Says Air Pollution from Cooking Caused 4.3 Million Premature Deaths

Nasty airborne particles kill 7 million people a year prematurely, reports the World Health Organization—way more than previous estimates.

That news may not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen images of smog-belching smokestacks in Beijing, Delhi, or Mexico. But those factories—or even the clogged roadways of modern cities—are not the biggest culprit. Each year, some 4.3 million people die earlier than they should because of foul air inside their homes, says the WHO. (Its study accounted for fact that people spend time both indoor and outdoors.)

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Farm to Fable

Eating Local May Feel Good, But Is It Smart for the Planet?

The local food movement has captured the imagination of many foodies, chefs, and gardeners. But is “going locavore” also good conservation — or just an exercise in feeling good?

The term “local” food has various and sometimes conflicting definitions. It often means food grown “near” the consumer (eg, within 50 miles, the county, or the same state). It can also mean food sold in an alternative food market. And it could refer to food that has some characteristic reminding people of what they think of as home.

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The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Ivanpah’s Land Footprint

World's Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox "Twin Pack"

The opening of the world's largest solar power station provides an opportunity to take stock of our energy options. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonized for around 10 billion people.

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Conservation and Development

We live on a human planet, in an era of our own making: the Anthropocene. Pristine nature is largely a thing of the distant past. As it approaches ten billion, the global population is becoming increasingly wealthy, urban, and well-connected. At the same time, economic modernization and technological evolution is continuing apace. The "Age of Humans" is an age of opportunities but also hard choices.

The Conservation and Development Program – through in-house research and in collaboration with its network of innovative thinkers – seeks to offer pragmatic new frameworks and tools for navigating these challenges.

PUBLICATIONS
 


 

BREAKTHROUGH IN THE NEWS



Amy Mathews Amos, "What's Wild? The Battle for Nature in the 21st Century," February 11, 2014


David Ropeik, "The Double-Edged Metaphor of Frankenstein," January 7, 2014


Robert Krulwich, "How Important is a Bee?" December 6, 2013


Fred Pearce, "Admit it: we can't measure our ecological footprint," November 20, 2013


Paul Voosen, "Who Is Conservation For?" November 10, 2013


David Biello, "Forget What You've Heard: Humans Are Not Using More Than One Planet," November 7, 2013


Ross Pomeroy, "Are Global Footprint Estimates Accurate?" November 6, 2013


UN Development Policy and Analysis Division, "World Economic and Social Survey 2013: Sustainable Development Challenges"


Bryan Walsh, "The Trouble With Beekeeping in the Anthropocene," August 9, 2013


Keith Kloor, "The Future of Conservation," July 26, 2013


Hillary Rosner, "Is Conservation Extinct?" July 22, 2013


Mark Halper, "Agribusiness is Greener Than Urban Farming," July 17, 2013


Fred Pearce, "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet's Last Best Hope," July 15, 2013


Oliver Geden, "Climate Change: What Next After the 2 Degree Celsius Boundary," June 11, 2013


Brad Plumer, "Why Are Birthrates Falling Around the World? Blame Television," May 13, 2013.

Robert Lalasz, "Debate: What Good Are Planetary Boundaries?" March 25, 2013
 

 
Erle Ellis, "Time to Forget Global Tipping Points," March 11, 2013
 

Tom Zeller Jr., "Tipping Points: Can Humanity Break the Planet?" March 2, 2013



B
ryan Walsh, "Anthropocene: Do We Need a New Environmentalism for a New Age?" December 18, 2012
 


 


 

"Boundary Conditions," June 16, 2012
 


 




Matt Ridley, "The Global Doomsayers' Ever-Changing Story," June 15, 2012
 

 



David Biello, "Walking the Line: How to Identify Safe Limits for Human Impacts on the Planet," June 13, 2012


People

Linus Blomqvist, 
Director

 




 

Marian Swain, Policy Analyst

 

 


 

 

Erle Ellis

 Erle Ellis, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Kareiva, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

Barry Brook

 

Barry Brook, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Sagoff, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Marvier, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David "Toby" McGrath, Senior Fellow

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Robbins, Senior Fellow