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Ecological Footprints of Neoliberal Capitalism

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The concept of ecological footprint was first proposed in 1996 by Rees and Wackernagel as a model to estimate the environmental impact of anthropogenic (human) activity at different scales - from individual consumers and specific corporations to the populations of entire cities and towns, states, regions, nations, and even trading blocs within the global trade system.  My dissatisfaction with the concept derives from the fact that, like many initially subversive ecological ideas, it has been largely neutralized and co-opted by so-called "sustainability" advocates and NGOs like the Center for Sustainable Economy, a respectable and no doubt well-meaning organization that operates the most popular version of the footprint estimate service.

The CSE version - which goes by the tag myfootprint.org - is simple and asks that we each become sustainability advocates by considering, "How much nature is required by our lifestyles?" This is a reasonable question and the answer provided for your own personal footprint is calculated based on an algorithm consisting of 27 variables that range from where you shop for food and if you buy organic to the size of your home and miles of travel by various modes (car, train, bus, airplane, etc.).  The questions underlying the algorithm, it can be argued, reflect a particularly white middle class and Eurocentric set of sensibilities.

This built-in bias is reinforced by the structure of the current neoliberal market for voluntary mitigation of given carbon or ecological footprints as illustrated in the annual report from Forest Trends, an organization that tracks and evaluates the private investor market for carbon offsets. Forest Trends notes that the market for what it calls "voluntary demand for carbon offsetting" grew by 4 percent in 2012, when buyers committed more than $523 million (US dollars) to offset 101 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The report highlights two trends:

Private sector buyers flocked to offsets earned by planting trees, saving tropical forests, or distributing clean cookstoves in the developing world, according to this year's State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets report [ ] The European private sector, including regulated energy utilities, was the market's biggest voluntary buyer - seeing demand grow 34% to 43.4 million tonnes of offsets even in the face of significant challenges to Europe's mandatory carbon market [ ] Across the pond, United States-based corporations, ranging from The Walt Disney Company to Chevrolet, offset more emissions than buyers in any other single country at 28.7 million tonnes. A little over a third of offsets purchased by US buyers (9.7 million tonnes) were obtained for future use in California's emerging cap-and-trade program.

I presume we can now call this the Disneyfication of environmental protection policy. But back to the ecological footprint model.     


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