Report classifies Utah as a natural resources hog

Leia Larsen, The Standard Examiner

July is a big month for significant dates. But nestled between the nation’s Independence Day on July 4 and Utah’s Pioneer Day on July 24 came another milestone. On July 14, we reached our national Ecological Deficit Day.

An ecological deficit means we’ve consumed more resources for the year than our land, waters and ecosystems can produce or absorb. As with overspending cash, it means we dip into credit that has to somehow be paid back.

The environmental think tank Global Footprint Network has calculated the national ecological debt for 15 years. This year, they refined things further with the “State of the States” report. The study provides “a new perspective” on the nation’s wealth and a snapshot of local consumptive habits.

Utah isn’t faring well. It tied with South Dakota and the District of Columbia for the fourth-largest ecological footprint. Utahns consume way more natural resources than they produce.

For food, clothing, transportation and housing, every Utahn consumes the equivalent of 22 global acres each year. The state only has a capacity to provide five acres per person.

To better understand how our consumptive habits in Utah impact the nation and the world, the Standard-Examiner spoke with Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network and Ph.D. in community and regional planning. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You write in the State of the State report that our current economic system was developed during a time when the nation’s natural resources were abundant. What changed?

Particularly post-World War II, we were able to pump more fossil fuels out of the ground and we had big machines to get them. Transportation was cheap and easy, so we could take advantage of agricultural soils across the nation and throughout the world. We could get resources from far away. That led to a rapid increase in resource demand.

Now we’re starting to recognize we can’t go elsewhere for more resources to meet growing demands. The planet is round, and we can’t trade with even farther-away places. Globally, we’re becoming more competitive. And from a fossil fuel and climate change perspective, there’s a limit as to how much we can put into the atmosphere.

Source: Global Footprint Network “State of the States.”

Is there a new economic system we could adopt?

We have to take our natural capital into account. Right now, we don’t even include it in our long-term planning. We think we can just adapt quickly. That may have worked at the end of the 20th century, but it doesn’t now as we move forward. The economic constraints we are facing will be much more significant. We might be building ourselves into a corner.

Utah’s ecological footprint ranking is pretty high for the nation — 22 global acres per person. How did you arrive at that number?

It’s how much you use versus how much you have. Utah is a large area but it’s relatively arid. It is not that productive per acre. The way you produce electricity is very coal-dependent. Even though you have lots of sunshine, your renewable energy production is quite low compared to other states. Population density is not that great, so people drive more. It’s a combination of many things, but it can all be addressed.

Humans seem to have a hard time fathoming the long-term environmental impacts of their actions. How can you help put it all in context?

Sure, in some ways we are short-term thinkers, but not with everything. People buy houses that last a long time. They invest in their children, too, even though it might take up to 25 years before they’re productive adults in society. If you closed kindergartens today you wouldn’t see an impact on the market for years to come, yet we still look ahead.

We just don’t think long-term in all domains equally. We haven’t with natural resources. I’m not exactly sure why. It’s a cultural blind spot. Probably because resources have been so incredibly cheap since the late 20th century. So we have this belief, therefore, that they’re unlimited. But the competition for resources is getting stronger. Developing countries are demanding more.

In a study comparing states’ ecological footprints, Utah had one of the largest footprints and biggest ecological impacts in the nation. But Utah’s neighboring state to the north, Idaho, had the second-lowest footprint. Much of Idaho’s reduced ecological impact comes from the state’s focus on renewable energy.

How do Utahns’ consumptive habits reverberate across the planet?

Well, if you buy coffee that comes from Colombia or Kazakstan, it physically moves through the global economy and there are impacts from that. But in the end, we have to make the link: What does it mean for Utah? Is Utah exposed economically if it uses more than it has? Yes, Utah has money and can buy the difference between what it consumes and what it produces, but that will become more difficult over time. It makes your economy less robust.

I think that’s what we’re starting to see. It’s not just bad for the planet, it’s bad for Utah. There’s a risk exposure Utah carries.

What can Utahns do to reduce their global impact on natural resources?

I think the first question is, do we believe it? Do we really think using more than what we have is a threat to our well-being? Because if we don’t, our actions will be haphazard.

If we accept we live in a world that’s more and more tight, where we don’t have access to resources, there are four things we can do.

First, make your infrastructure more compact. More compact housing means less heating and cooling needs. It means better transportation, and transportation that can be done more with human energy instead of fossil fuel energy.

The second solution has to do with energy systems and how we generate the energy we need. A bigger portion of our energy will probably come from electricity. There are resource-intensive ways to generate electricity, like coal power, or we can move to other forms like solar energy, wind power and a smart grid.

The third one is more controversial, but in the end is one of the biggest drivers. How big do we want our families to be? The more Utahns there are, the less Utah there is per person.

The fourth factor is food. Food production can be very resource-intensive or less resource-intensive. The more we move up the food chain, the more things are processed, the longer we travel to transport food, the more the demands on nature.

In the end, not everyone can be a net importer. Accounting, knowing where we’re at, helps us understand what it takes for Utah to be successful. All states can be successful, it’s not a zero-sum game. But each state needs to think about the world we’re living in and what it takes.

Like money shows how much we spend versus how much we earn, we can do the same thing with physical resources. That’s why we’ve offered another tool to make it visible.

To read the State of the State report, visit www.footprintnetwork.org.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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