I recently calculated my ecological footprint using an online calculator. If everyone lived as I do, we would need 2.39 planet earths, and we obviously have only one. I started this blog with the concept of ecological footprint because it is an integrated measurement of the effect of lifestyle choices on the ecosystem and its sustainability. It measures emissions of carbon dioxide and the amount and types of land and resources needed to support one's consumption and resulting waste products.
The current resource-intensive lifestyle of people in the developed world is not sustainable, but the toll on the environment from poverty and rapid population growth is not sustainable either, as depicted in the strikingly moving video She's Alive. The three biggest global ecological threats are water scarcity, loss of species diversity, and climate change. These are exacerbated by population growth, poverty and governmental policies.
Is it possible for humans to live in harmony with the environment in the 21st century? There are many choices that people can make to reduce their impact on the environment. "Where there's a will, there's a way." But where's our collective will? What keeps us from confronting the ongoing destruction of the web of life of which we are a part? As described by Doherty in Ecopsychology, this is where psychology has a role.
A number of psychological disciplines examine this problem: environmental psychology, ecopsychology, conservation psychology, and the psychology of sustainability, and others. Psychology offers insight into what motivates people to take action on behalf of the environment, as well into the various defense mechanisms that allow us to go on living in ways that are destroying the ecosystems on which we depend for food, water, energy, and material goods. Psychology also helps us understand the inner drives and fears that fuel consumerism, current rates of which cannot be sustained on a global scale.
Another psychological aspect is the effect of global ecological crises and ecosystem destruction on the human psyche. Humans are connected to the earth; we are part of the web of life. As Chief Seattle famously said in 1854, "This we know: All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
This brings us to the realm of deep ecology, in which the earth is viewed as alive and sacred. Through this perceptual lens, caring for the earth is a central value. This view is described well by Hunt who discussed the role of the human psyche in current environmental crises. Stating that we need to change ourselves to change the world, his essay addressed "the cultural/psychological/spiritual shift that seems necessary for us to solve the environmental challenges we face".
So, taking this challenge, I intend to work over the coming year to reduce the size of my ecological footprint, and I'll report back a year from now. I invite you to do the same—here's the quiz.
Sandy Olliges, M.A., teaches academic writing at San Jose State University. She is a former Environmental Manager for NASA Ames Research Center.