Ecological space… ship?

Perhaps we don’t need to worry about climate change, the environment, or the impact we have on the planet or other people. It’s always possible that technology, magic, time travel or Star Trek will sort everything out. If we just carry on as we are then we can just carry on carrying on as we are… Right?Starship-Enterprise

Well, no. We do have a space ship but it doesn’t look anything like the Starship Enterprise. It is spherical (ish), travels pretty damn fast through the vast nothingness of space, surrounded by stars. It’s an ecological spaceship, it is this planet, this unfathomably wonderful earth, and you won’t think me particularly profound in saying that it is the only one we’ve got.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the possibility that we will invent Warp drive and find other habitable (or inhabited!) planets. I may yet become Captain Jean-Luc Picard.* But just as I wouldn’t push my nearest and dearest, whom I cannot live without, out of a window on the off chance that I will then invent a time-machine and prevent myself from doing it (logic permitting), so it would be unwise in the extreme for us to push our only working spaceship past its (or our) limits, on the off chance that we’ll come across an alternative in the nick of time.

And that’s where ecologicalspaceship comes from. Eco means home. Logical is what we would be to apply the precautionary principle in a case where the risk is potentially cataclysmic, and the gains of our destruction are comparatively tiny. Ecological space refers to the proportion of the earth’s biologically productive land and water area required to produce the resources we consume and to assimilate the wastes generated, using prevailing technology. Combined with the fact that no human being has any intrinsic value greater than that of any other, you get the ecological footprint – an equal per capita share of ecological space, calculated to keep us within the carrying capacity of our spaceship, the earth.

With no spaceship in sight to take us to new and greener planets, an equal per capita share of ecological space offers the best bet for a fair and sustainable future. Those who over-consume must reduce their consumption in order to enable those living without enough to meet even basic needs have the same opportunities to flourish.

Natural resource use is about more than just how much coal, wood, steel or silicon is used to produce some product or service. It’s about ecosystem services, absorption capacity of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, it’s about biodiversity and groundwater; all the things which the prevailing economic paradigm takes for granted, and effectively presumes limitless.

Economic wealth correlates with resource consumption when resource consumption is conceived as the utilization of ecological space. A country or region’s occupation of ecological space – its ecological footprint – is measured in ‘global hectares’, of world average productivity. Resource consumption is not limited to the territorial allotment of resources, since wherever a resource or product originated in our global trading system, ecological space was used in its extraction, production and waste assimilation.

“When a country’s ecological footprint is larger than its available ecological capacity, it must “import” carrying capacity from elsewhere and/or deplete its natural capital faster than it can be replenished…


It may also “export” wastes such as CO2 emissions in excess of what its vegetation and surrounding oceans can absorb.”

– Paradis et al., 2004, Elaboration of the Concept of Ecological Debt

Studies have shown that wealth and ecological footprints do correlate positively. For example, Ventoulis et al. demonstrated a strong correlation between per capita footprints and per capita GDP for 134 countries in 2000. The US had the largest footprint, at 9.57 hectares per person (hpp), whilst Africa’s was under 1.8 hpp. Correspondingly, according to UN data, US GDP per capita was $33,924, whilst the continent of Africa’s was only $728.

It is the astronomical over-consumption of the world’s wealthy minority that is causing us to pass Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year, and our resource consumption has exceeded the planet’s ability to replenish itself – earlier and earlier each year. In 1993, Earth Overshoot Day was on October 21. In 2003, it was on September 22, and in 2013, on August 20.

The uneven consumption of resources – of ecological space – on a global scale is not only one of the most dramatic consequences of rabid economic inequality, it is one of the greatest injustices too.


*If you wish to contact anyone about the potentially unpalatable number of Star Trek references in this piece of text, then please contact Patrick Stewart, to whom this piece is dedicated.

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