Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How much room do I take up?

OK, in my search for a neutral life, I’ve discovered how hard it is to find a carbon offsetting scheme that everyone agrees with, and I’ve concluded that the best way to make account for all the abuse that goes on in the industries that make my clothes and pick my food is (given that I can’t always know how every product is produced) to sponsor two children in the third world…

But living on this planet in a consumer society does more than create a few tones of co2 and build a market in non-ethically produced goods.

What about the landfill I create with the waste I can’t recycle? What about the pesticides used in the production of my food? What, for that matter about the land used to grow the food itself? All these things damage the world, but they also take up space which could otherwise be used more positively.

And it’s a complex thing – I’ve no idea about how to start working out what my effect is… and a quick search around the Internet reveals that nobody else really has a clue either.

Carbon offsetting calculators are everywhere, but what about all the other footprints we leave? Nobody seems to know.

So, in keeping with the rest of my Neutral Life project, I’m going to make an uninformed stab based on half hearted research and garnish it with a bit of slapdash maths….

So here goes:
The one factoid I’ve managed to pull from the Interweb which appears to have some kind of basis is a calculation of the amount of space each person takes up… the idea is that this is a calculation of the land needed to produce the food they eat, deal with their waste, manufacture the goods they use…. Etc.

In other words, it’s a calculation of the amount of the Earth’s resources that are taken up by the person over their life. And it’s where the much copied “3 earths” statistic comes from – the idea that if everyone lived the way we do, we’d need 3 earths to support them.
It turns out that the figure is about 5.5 hectares (13.5 acres) for a British citizen.

So far so good… but aside from living on another planet (and I’m sure there’d be “food miles” issues associated with that) – there’s not much I can do – I mean, I can’t just create more land, can I?

Or can I?

Ok – how about this:

There’s a lot of the world where the land is pretty tough to make use of. It’s not land of great ecological importance – it’s just barren. And there are a lot of people trying to turn that land into usable farming land – to produce crops the world needs.

What if I could contribute to turning 5.5 hectares of that land from desert into farmland? That would give back the 5.5 hectares that my life takes out of the system, wouldn’t it?

Ok… how do I do it?

A quick check on Oxfam, farm Africa and similar charities draws a blank. They’ll let you make a donation of course to lots of worthy projects, but there’s no way to distinguish between (for example) buying goats, and irrigating fields… and there’s no way to quantify what 5.5 hectares of land actually equates to in terms of seeds or irrigating farmland.

It seems really hard to find any quantifiable way to help with the recovery of farmland…It’s relatively easy to protect rainforest areas -

You can protect an acre for £50 – my problem with this is it’s land that’s already there – I’m not adding new useful space to the world to make up for the acres I’m using up. I keep going back to this, but my benchmark here is practical solutions with measurable results – and that’s what makes it so difficult.

However, what I do find is Self Help – an Irish charity helping people in Africa make use of land for farming. Their site tells me that 22 euros is how much it costs to enable a small plot to be farmed…

but how small is small?

A quick check on another site reveals that the average private farm in Ethiopia is about 1 acre, so my slapdash maths tells me if I can commit 11 euros per month to that charity (about £7) That will put 6 acres of land into production every year.

Works for me.

So I’m nearly done… this 6 acres is the amount spent on growing my food, burying my rubbish and handling the pollution created by my consumer goods…

But there’s still one more thing to tackle…Tune in next time, when I take on the strange affair of the 20,000 fish…

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