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Ecological footprints: The rich wear big boots

Kerala is beautiful. Canals shaded by coconut palms, markets beside the water, kids playing on the banks. Walk the streets of Kovalum and you catch laughing eyes as groups chat and women display their colourful saris. There are plenty of festivals. Then return to Europe and you are struck by how drab and glum everyone looks.

Kerala is one of the poorest states in India. Yet the infant mortality rate in Kerala is lower than in some European countries; life expectancy is 72 years (higher than that of black people in the US); 95% of Keralites over the age of 7 can read and write; it has a higher proportion with post-graduate degrees than the US. Importantly, population is stable or falling. It is a matriarchal society but the low birth rate is due to the high level of female literacy.

What has all this to do with 'ecological footprints'? An 'ecological footprint' is the productive land necessary to support people in their lifestyle. An American or European gets his food, minerals and oil from all over the world and all these things use some of the world's limited productive land. His 'footprint' is larger than an Indian's. The world has only 1.5 hectares available for each person. But, to support its present patterns of consumption, the world needs 2.3 hectares of productive land per person. This excessive footprint is trampling the world's available resources. For example:

  • 10% of land on which to grow food was lost in the last 30 years.
  • The earth's forest, freshwater and marine environments have reduced by 30% in 30 years.
  • A third of all fish species and a quarter of all mammal species are in danger of extinction.

So while the population is increasing, the world's resource base is decreasing at an alarming rate. If everyone adopted the Western lifestyle we would need five earths to support us! So we either multiply the area of the earth by five, or match our lifestyle to the earth's available natural wealth. The latter is rather easier.

Back to Kerala: they are not harming the earth; their education, health and longevity are comparable with the West's; their women have equality; their population is stable. They show that one can have a satisfactory lifestyle with a footprint that is well within the carrying capacity of the world - ie sustainable. Perhaps we should be looking at their culture for lessons on how to create a sustainable culture for ourselves.

Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges; Alastair Sawday Publishing Co Ltd. To order the book or for more details visit www.littleearth.co.uk

  Free trade: Comparative advantage for the corporations
  Intuition: Common sense, imagination and morality
  Patenting life: Wait a minute! Who made it?
  The Terminator: Corporate control of food for profit
  Population: More or less
  Pests and weeds: Biotechnology for profit, a nightmare
  A citizens' jury: The locals know what aid they need
  Imperial tribute: Why the rich are rich and the majority poor
  The WTO: Power in a moral vacuum
  Biomimicry: Science's exciting new frontier
  Water denied: A crime against humanity
  The first MNC: Little has changed
  Feeding the world: There is no shortage of money or food
  Ecological footprints: The rich wear big boots