[VIEWPOINT]Not all consumption is good

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[VIEWPOINT]Not all consumption is good

Easter Island is a small isolated island in the South Pacific Ocean, about 3,200 kilometers west of the South American continent. Hundreds of giant stone heads called Moai Statues stand along the coastline. These Moais, which are 20 meters tall and weigh close to 100 tons, symbolize the highly developed civilization of the island.
Yet when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived on the island on Easter Day in 1722, there were no traces of a civilization capable of moving and establishing these giant stones. The entire island was a desolate plane, with no trees.
However, scholars recently found out that the island once had huge palm trees, 25 meters in height and almost two meters in diameter. Not only that, the island was also a habitat for many different kinds of animals. Natives of the island were not only able to use trees to move and construct the Moai, but could also carve tree trunks to make canoes and go out to sea to catch fish or dolphins, which they ate.
As the population of the island grew and tribes started to compete with each other to make more Moai, all the trees were cut down and the land slowly became barren. Unable to make any more canoes, the natives could not go out to sea to get food.
When Roggeveen arrived on the island, the population, which was once 10,000, was reduced to 2,000, and people were living on the brink of starvation, forced to resort to cannibalism. This story clearly shows how a highly developed civilization that could construct giant stone heads was ruined after the destruction of an ecosystem.
The “ecological footprint” is an index that converts the ecological effects of human consumption into the size of land and the quantity of water necessary to reproduce it. According to a recent announcement of the Earth Day Network, humanity’s ecological footprint is 2.2 hectares, about double the size of a football field, per person, while the sustainable reproduction capacity of our ecosystem, without decreasing the Earth’s productivity, is only 1.8 hectares per person.
In other words, the 1.8 hectares is like interest from our bank deposits. If we consume what can be reproduced from 1.8 hectares of land, the Earth’s reproduction capacity will be sustainable. However, we humans are now devastating the ecosystem by making an ecological footprint as big as 2.2 hectares per person.
The Earth Day Network also did a separate study on our country, and the result is much worse. The average ecological footprint of Koreans, based on the size of land and the amount of water needed to produce the resources we consume, is a whopping 3.4 hectares, which is much bigger than the world’s average of 2.2 hectares.
In contrast, our land can provide each of us with only 0.6 hectares worth of the necessary resources. We are filling the gap with imports, and so ultimately each of us is leaving 2.8 hectares of ecological footprints on other countries each year. This can be considered an ecological debt.
What is more serious is that in the early 1960s, we could afford to support our people’s consumption with the biological capacity of only 70 percent of our land, but now the consumption has grown so much as to require land that’s 5.7 times larger than our territory. Such a rapid increase in consumption is unprecedented in history, and in many ways it resembles Easter Island before it was ruined hundreds of years ago.
Whether or not they are achievable, goals such as a gross national product of $20,000, which is set under the assumption that the economy will grow infinitely, are meaningless considering the environmental reality of our country. In an age where the entire world is becoming another Easter Island, efforts to reduce the size of our ecological footprint and popularizing a lifestyle that fits within the limits of our natural resources are more important than increasing our GNP. After all, the world is limited.

* The writer is a Korean-Canadian ecologist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Tak Kwang-il
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