My Ecological Footprint and a Response to an Irrational Argument

I guess I need to clean up my act. According to the Global Footprint Network’s calculator, my ecological footprint is 4 earths, and 17.7 global acres (Global Footprint Network, 2011). If I follow the suggestions offered by the calculator, my footprint would still be 3.6 earths (Global Footprint Network, 2011). This presents an obvious problem. The minor possible reduction and the fact that even if everyone reduced their footprint there would still be a major issue suggests that the problem is complex and must be thoughtfully and rationally engaged. If technology and the ability it provides to intensify agriculture and justify the use of the earth’s finite resources are to be a solution, as Ridley (2010) suggests, it certainly requires better than the pitiful argumentation that he has provided. I mean, is this guy for real? His total lack of philosophical reasoning would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous. Even if technology can provide solutions, it does not preclude any benefits to be realized by the lowering of personal footprints.

While there are not many lifestyle changes I can make to significantly reduce my footprint right now, I am still very active in doing so and have been trying to find ways to implement changes in order to do just that. The main emphasis has recently been on the shifting of my food consumption to a mostly vegan diet, with locally produced food. This, like other changes that are being made, are implemental changes, and an ongoing process. It would be nice to take solace in the idea presented by Ridley (2010) that the amount of land needed to support my lifestyle is not a problem. Unfortunately, no solace can be found. Not only do his ideas provoke an intuition of ‘that is just wrong,’ his arguments are weak and one-dimensional.

Ridley’s (2010) book The Rational Optimist makes me wonder if someone should help him understand the concept of rationality. After reading the summary of his book, my rational and philosophical mind is reeling in shock; my inner Plato is weeping. Ridley’s arguments are nothing other than majestically irrational. Logic, evidently, is not important to Ridley in espousing his ideas, which are absurd and fallacious to the point of hardly warranting refutation. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the short summary I read is exactly that – my doubtful hope is that the book has better substantiation, for the summary has produced a relatively long list of points that should be addressed.

Ridley (2010) rests his entire line of argument on the presupposition that the amount of land being used per person is more important than the physics of finite resources and the damage done by technology. He does not truly consider the destructive forces of industrialized farming or fossil fuels, and when he does mention them, he commits breathtaking fallacies to defend his thesis. Yes, land use per person is a very important factor to consider, but it seems incredibly short-sighted and irresponsible to take it as the only and ultimate measuring stick. There are many errors of thought in Ridley’s (2010) arguments that I cannot go into detail on within the scope of this post, but a few demand immediate attention.

Firstly, through the claim that some renewable sources have been depleted, Ridley (2010) diverts attention away from the obvious problem that finite resources, including land, are still finite (p. 8). Argumentation by distraction? What he seems to be asserting is that some renewable sources have been exhausted, and therefore finite resources can be used at will. Any Logic 101 student can see the absurdity in this argument. Clearly, Ridley can only be attempting to distract from the true questions, which are: 1) can finite resources be depleted? and 2) can renewable resources be safeguarded from depletion? I would hazard a guess to answer yes, and yes, respectively. Ridley (2010) also appeals to authority, which, under some circumstances might be admissible, but, considering the gravity of the situation, a scientific quote from 1943 (p. 8) does not qualify as admissible. I do not mean to insinuate that people were stupid in 1943. In fact, I assert that people were smart, but to hazard another guess, I also assert that we have learned much since 1943, and should endeavor to base important theories on the latest scientific information.

There also is a problem with the idea posited by Ridley (2010) that a hunter-gatherer needs 1000 hectares. While this is perhaps true, the question must be asked: what would that number be if it reflected the amount of land in persistent use – the amount of land actually being used at any given time? It does not require long deliberation to hazard a guess that it would be considerably less than that of industrialized agriculture. It must also be considered that the hunter-gatherer realm is a natural ecosystem, free of fossil fuels and invasive chemicals. Industrialized agriculture uses land persistently, which is altered by the use of fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides. As has been shown often enough that it hardly bears repeating, this can be disastrous to the soil and to the environment. Another problem with Ridley’s idea is that the land in industrialized farming is in danger of becoming completely unusable, and must remain in the total footprint calculation indefinitely, in addition to the land which is used to replace it. A further issue that Ridley seems to be blissfully ignorant of is that organic farming, with techniques of double-digging and other innovations, actually increases yield while still improving the quality of the soil.

Ultimately, even without Ridley’s poor reasoning, I struggle to understand the purpose of his argument. Other than attempting to assuage a collective guilty conscience or enable the continuation of current lifestyles, there is no point. Even with technology continuing its supposed improvements, why should that somehow render the benefits of reducing personal footprints less valuable? I have been attempting to reduce my footprint for several years, so this assignment is not the first time I have made efforts to do so. Out of curiosity, I calculated the footprint of my previous lifestyle. My diet consisted of more animal and dairy products, and I was much more mobile (I flew at least three times a week).  Entering these numbers into the calculator indicate I needed a whopping 8.5 earths and 37.6 global acres (Global Footprint Network, 2011). Comparing this previous footprint shows how the changes I have made in the past few years have had a significant impact. Though Ridley (2010) seems to argue that such changes are not important, the difference of 4.5 earths in my footprint suggests otherwise.

The point of Ridley’s argument is therefore ultimately irrelevant. Even if his argument is valid, and technology does reduce our footprint, it is not difficult to understand that the earth is finite, and any reductions to the human footprint are helpful. Whether through technology or lifestyle, such changes are beneficial to both current and future generations. In spite of the difficulty I have in taking Ridley very seriously, his article does reveal the complex nature of the environmental problems we face, and any attempts to offer suggested solutions must be welcomed. I, for my part, will not buy in to Ridley’s ‘get out of jail free’ card though, and will consciously continue to attempt to reduce my ecological footprint.

Works Cited

Global Footprint Network (2011, September 8). Footprint Calculator. Retrieved October 3, 2013, from www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/

Ridley, M. (2010) How To Shrink the Human Footprint: And How Going Back to Nature Would Be a Disaster for Nature. ChangeThis Issue 71-02 (changethis.com)

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