I recently had a lively conversation with my teenage daughter about our environmental footprint, a concept that she was studying in school.  Like a lot of young people, she is quite concerned about the direction the world is going, about how many planet Earths we would need to sustain our current lifestyle, and how to solve our sustainability challenges.

Although the term “ecological footprint” dates to the early 1990s, the basic idea is older than this.  Back in the 1970s, a similar idea was expressed in terms of an equation which soon became a standard way to think about humanity’s ongoing harm to the natural environment:

I = P x A x T.

The equation states that our impact on the environment, “I”, is a function of the human population, “P”, the affluence of that population, “A”, and the nature of technology, “T”.

A fundamental belief embedded in the IPAT equation and in much of environmental thinking generally is that human beings necessarily have a negative impact on the environment.  In this “footprint” model of human-nature interactions, the goal of environmentalism is to reduce our environmental footprint, which is the “I” in IPAT.  Environmentalism aims, through some combination of reducing consumption and affluence (the “A” in the equation) and adopting more efficient and environmentally friendly technologies and methods of production (the “T” in the equation), to reduce our footprint, hopefully to a level below which nature is able to absorb and recover from our assault.  But in this way of thinking we can never reduce “I” to zero.

Because “A x T” is always a positive number, people are assumed to always be a problem.  Some people are more of a problem than others, but every human life contributes to harming nature.  For this reason, although interest in population control has fluctuated over the years, it has never completely disappeared from the discourses on sustainability, conservation and environmentalism.


Footprint thinking and human-nature dualism

Although environmentalism is generally opposed to consumerism, industrialism and unbridled capitalism, in the IPAT way of thinking it shares the same dualistic conception of humanity and nature that underlies those manifestations of Western modernism.  On the other hand, if we embrace the idea that human beings are within and part of the natural world, we create a mental space in which we can imagine ourselves having productive and useful roles within ecosystems.  For a human community actually living in this way, “I = P x A x T” becomes meaningless.  As a motivating force for environmentalism, reducing “I” by reducing some combination of “P” and “A” and “T” is the wrong objective.  Our aim rather should be a complete transformation in the way that we live so that IPAT ceases to apply.

Environmental FootprintThe central role given to parks and other kinds of protected areas in strategies for conservation is an example of the problematic thinking.  As I’ve suggested before, the very phrase “protected areas” is symptomatic of a deeper problem.  If nature needs protection from us, the solution is not to protect more of it and hire more rangers with better guns.  If nature needs protection from us, it’s a clear sign that we must completely change the way that we live.  The environmental values that we aim to protect in protected areas need to be extended to the whole globe.  We need to completely rework our economic systems so that we’re not just reducing our footprint, but we actually become a positive force.


An alternative

It has become a bit of a cliché to talk about the way that many indigenous peoples lived—and in some cases still live—in harmony with nature.  But cliché or not, lifestyles and economies that are in harmony with nature is what we need to achieve now for the whole world, and indigenous communities provide some clues as to what this might look like.  They tend to have notions of living in harmony with nature embedded in their cultures, and in many cases have been able to translate these ideas into reality.  What is important to understand though is that these indigenous ways of living in harmony with nature are not necessarily based on walking lightly, being careful, and having no impact—that is to say, they are not always based on IPAT and minimizing their footprint.  Rather, these strategies often involve being active stewards, gardeners, or sculptors of nature.

...these indigenous ways of living in harmony with nature are not necessarily based on … IPAT and minimizing their footprint. Rather, these strategies often involve being active stewards, gardeners, or sculptors of nature. Click To TweetFor example, indigenous communities in the North American Great Plains and pastoralists in East Africa have traditionally made selective use of fire as an ecosystem management tool, ensuring landscape heterogeneity, controlling ticks and other parasites, and maintaining healthy rangeland ecosystems that benefit livestock and wildlife.  Indigenous communities on the northwest coast of North America constructed clam gardens, which were amazingly productive intertidal ecosystems.  And indigenous communities in the Amazon did not merely live in the rainforest ecosystem, they actively managed it, using raised earthworks to create unique microclimates in floodplains and guiding which trees propagated in favor of a wide variety of useful species.  The next time you enjoy a piece of chocolate, take a moment to remember that before it become a global commercial crop, it was cultivated sustainably for hundreds of years by indigenous peoples in Central and South America using methods which nowadays get labelled as agroforestry or evergreen agriculture.

In contrast, footprint thinking implies that there is a natural, pristine state to which ecosystems can return if human beings just leave them alone.  This assumption is not very different from the colonial mindset which looked on indigenous lands and saw them as unoccupied wilderness and as resources that were going to waste.  In reality, the human beings who spread across all the continents of the world over the past forty thousand years shaped the ecosystems where they lived, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  “Pristine nature” is something that has hardly existed anywhere on Earth for a very long time.

Let me be clear—I am not denying that our current economic system and way of living are disastrous for life on this planet.  And I believe that methods for appreciating our environmental footprint are useful.  However, we can’t solve the problem with the same mindset that created it.  We are part of the ecosystems that we inhabit, and we affect those ecosystems.  I firmly believe that we can create a sustainable global society, not by protecting nature from us but by transforming ourselves to become effective stewards and managers of nature from within.  I believe that we can and that we must.