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By Shawn Blore

Photos by Lorne Bridgman


Essentially, the ecological footprint is a measure of how much nature is required to maintain a particular lifestyle. Over three hectares of forest, for example, are required to absorb the nearly 20 tons of CO2 generated over the course of a year by a typical American commuting consumer. The ecological footprint is the sum total of the resources consumed and wastes generated by any subject, from a single individual to a whole city or country, expressed as an area of biologically productive land or ocean.

"The idea with footprints is to thematize overshoot, the idea that we're using more resources than there are in the world," says Wackernagel, now a senior fellow with the San Francisco-based activist think tank, Redefining Progress. The intent is not so much to raise awareness, he maintains, as it is to inspire action. People are already aware of everything, but it's not meaningful to their lives. I'm working at making these issues meaningful to people in a visceral way." The footprint, then, is intended to provide people with the tools they need to begin making substantive personal changes.

And that's just a beginning. Other ecoGeeks have developed 'sustainability indicators' for items such as solid waste production, energy and water consumption, and a host of other factors. They're now being put to use in cities such as Pasadena, Tucson, Santa Monica, Boulder, Jacksonville, Seattle, Austin, Portland and hundreds of others. Nearly all have a pedagogical component, but as Wackernagel noted, ecoGeeks aren't just out to raise awareness. They want to improve the world and to know exactly how much they've improved it.

In keeping with the ecoGeek philosophy, Redefining Progress doesn't stop at analysis. It also offers solutions. Chief among these is environmental tax reform, the idea of shifting taxes away from things we want more of (such as employment) and onto things we want less of, such as pollution. Redefining Progress is also working on ways to implement pricing reforms, incorporating the externalities and ecological services provided by nature into the price of products we buy.

Over in the UK, ecoGeek Craig Simmons has recently found himself making a lot of presentations on his footprint eco-calculator to traditionally conservative groups such as chartered accountants. He finds he's especially effective when he makes no recommendations or moral judgements whatsoever. "Our method doesn't come with the baggage of a whole set of values," says Simmons. "We're not saying you've got to reduce your environmental impact. We're not even saying things have to be shared equitably around the planet, although we might think that. What we're actually doing is saying 'Here's a measuring method. You decided how you want to use it."'

Typically, says Simmons, once he's explained how his measuring tool works he lets his clients get to work on their own. "They do the calculations and then they look up and say 'Oh wow, this is really bad for us.' And I say, 'Oh is it? Oh dear, you better do something about it then.' It's quite nice to be able to step back and let them draw their own conclusions. It's quite powerful."

It's an approach typical of the ecoGeek activist. Partly, as Simmons notes, it stems from a pragmatic desire to have as much impact as possible. But there's also an ingrained Xer distrust for moralizing arguments at work. Having watched the Boomers wage a series of flip-flopping moral re-education campaigns -from 'if it feels good do it,' to 'don't do it till you're married and maybe not even then,' from 'tune in and turn on' to 'just say no,' from anti-war to Gulf War, Xers have come to a pair of related conclusions. First, human nature is unlikely ever to change. The same lust for status, sex and material comfort that has motivated every other generation in recorded history will likely continue to operate for the foreseeable future - sales of The Celestine Prophecy notwithstanding.

Second, it just doesn't matter. Xers have 'no window to see into men's hearts,' nor do they need one. There is no link whatever between moral purity and ecological impact. One can lie, cheat, and steal, manipulate, prevaricate and fornicate, and still tread lightly on the planet. What's needed aren't better people, but simply more energy-efficient forms of housing, and more environmentally friendly forms of transit to move the liars, thieves, and hypocrites (us, that is) from one den of iniquity to another.

By abandoning the language of a moral crusade, one can work for change without worrying about the purity of someone's motives. Instead of reforming people - a task that even saints and deities have found a challenge - you can work on reforming institutions, redesigning infrastructure, and providing concrete solutions for the 12 billion impure souls that will soon inhabit the earth. The Gen-X tribe of ecoGeeks - technically adept, materialist in outlook, with a focus on cities - are just the ones to do the work.

- Shawn Blore is a magazine and newspaper writer with an interest in sustainability. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Globe and Mail and Canadian Geographic.

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