Celebrating the ‘human footprint’

The Channel 4 documentary Human Footprint denies mankind’s positive side and reduces all our output to waste.

James Heartfield

Topics Culture

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In Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film sex, lies and videotape Andie MacDowell’s character tells her therapist she is more concerned about the sink’s waste disposal unit than her sex life, imagining all the waste that goes down it, joining up with all the other waste disposal units, to create a vast ocean of gunk. Waste disposal, the idle concern of the self-obsessed and numb housewife in 1989, is a hot topic today. In The Human Footprint, which airs on British TV’s Channel 4 at 9pm tonight, we are shown great piles of consumer goods – 4,239 toilet rolls, 74,802 cups of tea, 8.49 tons of packaging – that pass through the average Briton in a lifetime.

The show is witty, piling a lifetime’s carrot intake in a giant carrot-shaped pile, and timely (and I am not remotely bitter that I proposed a human footprint show to Channel 4 seven years ago). The idea of the human footprint is in everyone’s minds right now: yesterday, crowds of Sainsbury’s shoppers in the UK fought to buy an Anya Hindmarch ‘I’m Not A Plastic Bag’ branded bag, while local authorities defended fortnightly rubbish collections on the grounds that they increased recycling.

The original idea of the ‘human footprint’ was that each head of population would need a given area of land from which to raise his or her subsistence. As the mass of consumer goods each person used increased, he would need more land – the footprint would get larger. Of course it is a representational tool, since we do not derive all our goods from one discrete piece of land. And in the Channel 4 version, the relationship between an area of land and producing the goods has largely gone. The focus is more on the mountain of rubbish left behind.

Herbert Girardet taught planners about the human footprint idea when he estimated that London’s footprint was 125 times its surface area, or about three hectares per person – an estimate that he says today was half what it should be. Girardet has been active in the environmental movement for more than 30 years, making documentary films and working with the United Nations and the New Economics Foundation to draw attention to the depletion of natural resources (1).

I took issue with Girardet’s human footprint idea last year. In his account book for London he has two columns, one headed ‘inputs’ (oxygen, water, food and so on) and the second headed ‘wastes’ (including CO2, SO2 and NOx). What happened to the positive output of cities: the industrial goods, the farm equipment and fertilisers, the iPods, Channel 4 documentaries and Anya Hindmarch bags? These do not feature in the estimation of the human footprint. The very concept of the human footprint abstracts from humankind’s positive, productive side, and reduces all output to pollution or waste (2).

Missing out the productive side of human output leads to a miscalculation of the human footprint. That is because although the input of consumer goods does indeed increase, so too does resource productivity. Or to put that in ordinary language, we get more from less. That is especially true of land. With the application of science to agriculture, grain yields increase, which has meant that even though we consume more year on year, the area under the plough has been decreasing since 1981. Far from being under pressure, more land is being freed up all the time. In area terms, that means the human footprint is actually shrinking (3).

The original idea of the human footprint is taken from two related concepts: sustainability and carrying capacity. ‘Sustainability’ refers to the limits on non-renewable resources. It was first used about Halibut stocks in the Pacific that were being fished by Japanese and American fleets (4). ‘Carrying capacity’ is the land’s capacity to carry more or less people. It was first used by the colonial authorities in Northern Rhodesia to warn against population growth among black Africans – a particular concern of the white settlers (5). In both cases the mean-spirited interest in limits arose because those resources were the prize in a social conflict. That you could farm fish, or that settlers and natives did not need to fight over land, was beyond the terms of the debate.

The impact of the visualisation of the human footprint in Channel 4’s documentary is remarkable. What surprises us is the scale of the human endeavour. It is a kind of solipsism not to understand that human beings really are very productive indeed. In the 1940s it was common for documentary filmmakers to show work processes that create the goods we consume. But the loss of interest in working life means that we rarely see ‘how milk gets to your doorstep’ (or supermarket) today. Instead we see the reverse side – how the rubbish piles up in the landfill.

The paradox is that people’s lives are secured by enlarging their ecological footprint, not reducing it. The greater the metabolism between man and nature, the larger are human possibilities, and therefore security increases. Resource efficiency does not come from limiting industry, but from expanding it.

James Heartfield is speaking at ‘All Planned Out: The Worldwide Impact of the British Town and Country Planning System’ at The Building Centre in central London on 18-19 May 2007. More details here.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton argued that life is too short to be carbon neutral, and that we should stop living ethically and start living. Austin Williams asked whether you were aware that ‘carbon offsetting’ programmes here, stifle development elsewhere. Ethan Greenhart advised us not to give money to Africans since they’re responsible for over populating the planet. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment

(1) See Herbert Girardet, The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for Sustainable Urban Living, Gaia Books, 1996

(2) See Herbert Girardet and the plastic concept of sustainability; and see Girardet’s reply, James, please take off your blinkers

(3) See James Heartfield, Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next Ten Years, Audacity, 2007

(4) Douglas Chapman, Utilization of Pacific Halibut Stocks: Estimation of Maximum Sustainable Yield, 1962

(5) William Allan, Studies in African Land Usage in Northern Rhodesia, 1949

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