Living on a Finite Earth

Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
—Letter to President Pierce,
attributed to Chief Seattle

We humans are the cause of environmental problems. Only one species uses fossil fuels, synthesizes petrochemicals, and contaminates water and air wholesale. Yet I often feel we humans do not accept that we originated problems that affect all species and endanger our future existence.

Of course, all people should be alarmed about what is happening to our planet. But Friends in particular have avoided personal use of intoxicants such as tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs; shouldn’t we also be concerned about polluting our world with toxins?

And we should be troubled about the rapid increase in the human population over the past century. The more people there are, the greater the impact on the environment. In addition, there is a relationship between high population density and hostility. I grew up just after World War II, and I remember that one of the reasons given for the start of the war was that Germans wanted to spread out. A classic study of rats showed that under conditions of high population density, they became aggressive and exhibited abnormal behavior. Indeed, this concern about the rapid growth of the human species led to my choice of profession as an obstetrician gynecologist, so I could help people regulate their fertility—and perhaps aid peace.

It’s possible to delude oneself into believing that our planet’s resources are unlimited. If one person is concerned, say, that the supply of petroleum is running out, someone else will say that there are huge untapped reserves. This cornucopian belief is plausible for many resources, but not for land. The amount of land on Earth is finite, and only part of our planet’s surface is hospitable to life. The fact that bioproductive land is limited is the ultimate constraint to our consumption and population.

One of the beauties of nature is its ability to restore itself. This is the basis of the "Gaia hypothesis"—that the planet is like an immense organism that maintains its equilibrium. Unfortunately, humans overwhelm the planet’s regenerative ability. We have left enduring scars on the environment both because we are so numerous and because we use so much of the Earth’s resources. Our objective should be to leave the planet in as good or better condition than it was given to us. Indeed, this is the definition of sustainability: "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

Each of us needs land on which to live, grow food, and dispose of waste. The area that is needed to support one person is larger than it might seem at first glance, and is much larger now than it was a half century ago. Houses are larger, the surrounding yards are bigger, and the connecting roads eat up huge bites of land. This sprawl is enabled by vehicles powered by petroleum-based fuels.

Many of us are unaware of the acreage needed to produce food at the supermarket, since we don’t actually see the food being grown. The amount of land needed for people who eat meat is especially large, since most animals grown for meat are fed grain. For instance, it takes seven pounds of grain to create one pound of beef. Although the steer itself might occupy little bioproductive land, the fields to grow the grain are much more expansive.

Perhaps even more surprising is the amount of land needed to dispose of waste. In addition to landfills needed for our solid waste, a huge area is also needed to remove the carbon dioxide generated by our use of fossil fuels. Forests and other plants are the only way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; this is why the rainforests of the world have been called the "lungs of the planet."

The land required to support one person has been called the "Ecological Footprint (EF)." This expression was popularized by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in their book Our Ecological Footprint (1996). It has become a widely accepted way of quantifying the impact of a single person, or of a whole country. You can calculate your footprint on the website by going to or find a copy of the January/February 2003 issue of Sierra Magazine.

The average footprint of people in over 100 countries can be found at http://www.rprogress.org under the heading "Footprint of Nations." (Note: there are about two-and-a-half acres to one hectare.) At the very bottom of the footprint list are some of the poorest countries, Haiti and Bangladesh. People in these countries require only about an acre and a half, on the average. But at the top of the list is the United States; our average ecological footprint is almost 24 acres per person! On this website, you can also see that it is not the people in poor, developing countries who are having the biggest effect on our planet. Yes, some of them might have large families, but not all. It is interesting to see that there are dozens of poor countries where people choose to have small families; Cuba is a good example.

Each Cuban woman has an average of 1.6 children, significantly below the number required to halt population growth, 2.1. And keep in mind that the rich countries of the north like the United States are at the top of the list for the impact we have on the planet. The ratio between the U.S. average footprint and that of countries at the bottom of the list is 19 to one! This implies that a couple in Bangladesh can have 19 children and affect the environment the same as a U.S. couple with just one.

You can find the average area of land available for each person on the planet by dividing the total bioproductive land area by the number of people. This turns out to be about 4.6 acres per person. It is also easy to find the average footprint of all humanity; this is estimated to be 5.4 acres. There is a deficit of almost an acre per person! Put another way, we are using about 15 percent more bioproductive land than we have available to us.

How is this possible? How can we be using more land than is available? Remember, the goal is to meet our needs without compromising the needs of future generations. It would take an average of 5.4 acres per person to live sustainably. We are using up resources faster than they can be regenerated; we are stealing capital from future generations.

What can we do about this worrisome situation? Fortunately there are many steps that we can take to have a less harmful effect on the world. Here is a short list; I invite you to add your own ideas:

Live simply. Quakers have been doing this for centuries! We are now part of a much larger movement of people who own less, work less, and are enjoying life more. To find out more about living simply, try http://www.newroadmap.org or http://www.simpleliving.net.

Join Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW). Formerly known as the Friends Committee on Unity with Nature, this is a spiritually centered movement of Quakers seeking ways to integrate concern for the environment with Friends long-standing testimonies for simplicity, peace, and equality. You can find QEW at http://www.quakerearthcare.org.

Read Befriending Creation, the polished newsletter of QEW. It has articles about environmental issues and suggestions to help Friends be gentler on the natural world. It is available online at QEW’s website, as well as in a paper edition.

Know About Contraception. Almost half of pregnancies conceived in the United States are unplanned! Without these unintended pregnancies, the number of abortions would be very low, and so would our population growth. Even if you don’t need contraception yourself, you can be a resource for those who do. Be sure that condoms, which protect against aids as well as pregnancy, are available to all who need them. In case of a condom failure, be familiar with "Emergency Contraception." EC pills are a higher dose of the hormones in regular birth control pills. They are amazingly safe and very effective if taken within three days of unprotected sex—the sooner, the better. EC pills do not cause an abortion. Even though they are safer than aspirin, the FDA has refused to make them available without prescription.

Learn more at http://www.not-2-late.com, or call 1-888-NOT-2-LATE to find the closest provider of these pills.

Encourage breastfeeding. The world’s most widely used temporary contraceptive method—nursing—benefits both mother and baby. Unfortunately, our society often makes it difficult for women to breastfeed. Benefits for the baby include: fewer infections, less diarrhea, less chance of obesity and of hypertension, and less need for healthcare. Moms’ benefits include: weight loss after childbirth, decreased risk of breast cancer, and less cost.

Choose to have a small family. Perhaps this is the most important action an individual can take. It has been said that the United States is the world’s most overpopulated country—because we use so much more than our share of resources.

Support 34 Million Friends. This campaign was founded when George W. Bush cut off funding for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund (it was originally called the UN Fund for Population Activities). The two million dollars that it has collected so far is actually going to support the UNFPA’s fistula program since other countries stepped in to fill in the gap when the United States reneged. You can learn more, and make a tax-deductible contribution, at the website http://www.34millionfriends.org.

There are many other actions that we can take to foster sustainability. Some are simple, such as walking or taking public transportation instead of driving a private vehicle; others are more difficult. For me, it has been difficult to reach out to others with my concern about population and overconsumption. We must recognize that U.S. lifestyles and the growth of the world’s population are not sustainable.

Fortunately, with the old Quaker Testimony on Simplicity and new environmental and population concerns, Friends can be leaders in the achievement of sustainability.