The Hand That Covers The Eye

Anyone heard of the “Eco-Handprint”? I was first directed to this idea by a colleague of mine at work, who pointed me to this blog post by Jing Gomez, “Handprints”, posted on 23rd March 2012. This blog post was cited in my college’s announcement of its new “Heritage Handprints” environmental awareness campaign.

The main expert mentioned in relation to the origin of the “Handprint” was Gregory Norris of the Harvard School of Public Health. As the blog post describes it:

In Norris’ study, he mentions that after learning to compute LCA (Life cycle assessments) for their total footprints, his students come to conclude that the earth would have been better off if they had not been born. Sadly, many subscribe to this.

This led Norris to invent a new economic indicator, the “Handprint”, the measure of how much human activity benefits the earth. But let’s look at the claim that students who performed this assessment concluded that “the earth would have been better off if they had not been born”. Now misanthropy is certainly a major moral problem. But misanthropy is not the problem here: the problems are pollution and global warming. And those who say that studying the “Footprint” produces misanthropy are simply wrong, as I shall explain.

The idea of the “Handprint” is given to us as a preferable alternative to the “Footprint”, the main economic indicator of environmental impact that has been used effectively by scientists since the 1990’s. Here’s what the blog post says a “Footprint” is.

Traditionally, talk centers on footprints — the sum total of the negative impact of pollution released and resources consumed by the products we use. It cannot but be depressing.

But this is wrong. Here’s how it is defined by Mathis Wackernagel, the man who invented the idea of the eco-footprint in the first place:

EP/ACC is a simple, yet comprehensive tool: it provides an accounting framework for the biophysical services that a given economy requires from nature. It is calculated by estimating the land area, in various categories, necessary to sustain the current level of consumption by the people in that economy, using prevailing technology. An economy’s full Ecological Footprint would include all the land whose services this economy appropriates from all over the globe to provide necessary resource inputs and to assimilate corresponding waste outputs. The EF/ACC concept thereby demonstrates the ecological dependence of economic systems. It is both an analytic and heuristic device for understanding the sustainability implications of different kinds of human activities, and serves as an awareness tool and an action-oriented planning tool for decision-making towards sustainability.

(M. Wackernagel, “Ecological Footprint and Appropriated Carrying Capacity: A Tool for Planning Toward Sustainability” Doctoral thesis accepted by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, October 1994).

A straw man fallacy can be found in the claim that an ecological footprint is the sum of all negative human impacts on the earth. But as you can see from the original definition, that’s simply not true. The ecological footprint is the sum of all human impact of any kind, positive or negative. It is the sum of how much physical land on the earth is needed to supply all of a given society’s material needs: food, building materials, energy, and the like. It is also a measure of how much land is needed to assimilate our waste: landfills, incinerators, and so on. The eco-footprint of London, England, for instance, is estimated at 50 million hectares, or approximately the land area of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Now when one looks at the actual impacts of human communities like that, it may appear as if they are all harmful to the earth. But that’s simply not true, because the EF/ACC measure is capable of incorporating the extent to which environmental exploitation is sustainable and renewable. In other words, it already does the job of measuring the positive impacts. And indeed its job is also to measure whether our impacts are harmful or not. Thus there is simply no need for a separate economic indicator to tell “the other half of the story”. Thus the characterization of the eco-footprint as a measure of the “negative” or “harmful” impacts is a straw man.

The blog post targets not the actual problem of global warming and climate change, but rather targets its effect on human emotions. It talks about how the study of humanity’s eco-footprint “cannot but be depressing”. It says that the study of humanity’s eco-footprint is the “ugly side” of the story. But these are all red herrings. Global warming and climate change is a fact, agreed upon by the vast overwhelming majority of serious scientific evidence discovered by competent scientists. Now some people may, indeed, feel profoundly personally troubled by this fact. But if we are good scientists and good critical thinkers, then we care more about reality and the truth than we do about our personal feelings. And if the facts of the case are unsettling or upsetting, our duty is not to tell ourselves a gratifying feel-good story about them. Rather, our duty is to do something about it.

But what should we do? The blog suggests that doing superficial things like printing computer documents on both sides of a page, or inflating car tires properly, will save the earth. Thus the illusion is created that leads people to believe, wrongly, that by doing such superficial things, they are fulfilling the moral duty to protect the environment from harm, including the kind of harm that can render the earth unliveable for human beings. But that is like re-arranging the furniture in a house that is on fire. And this is an appropriate analogy, given that one of the recent serious effects of global warming is an increase in the size and frequency of forest fires.

Indeed that very complacency and non-action is veritably encouraged by the author of the blog post, in his statement that we should “think beyond big changes”. There is no polite way for me to say what I’m about to say: but to “think beyond big changes” is to fail to criticize the economic and political forces which both created and also continually benefits from the continued destruction of the earth. A guilty conscience is soothed; a depressing reality ignored; and the corporate-funded destruction of the Earth is permitted to continue unabated. While we ordinary people recycle our plastic bottles and lower our thermostats in the evening, the big corporations build more offshore oil platforms, and more coal-fired power plants, and pumps more pollution into the atmosphere and the oceans we all breathe and drink.

In sum, the “handprint” is a deliberate attempt to prevent people understanding the problem of global warming properly. It’s not the hand that touches the earth and heals: rather, it is the hand that covers the eyes and the camera lens so you don’t see, covers the pages of your scientific journals so you don’t read, and plugs the ears with its fingers so you don’t hear the truth. And it’s the hand that holds down other people’s hands and prevents them from doing the most useful and effective kind of work.

Dr. Brendan Myers has a Ph.D in environmental ethics, and serves as professor of philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec.

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