TCS Daily

Measuring Santa Monica's Feet

By Tim Worstall - May 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Back at the turn of the month Santa Monica City Council proudly announced that they had reduced the ecological footprint of their pleasant urb by 167 square miles. As the city occupies only 8.3 square miles, perhaps a little investigation is in order?

The concept of such footprints comes from a paper in PNAS in 2002, edited by one Edward O. Wilson of Harvard (a name and place to send shivers down the spines of the economically literate). In essence, an attempt is made to add up all the land needed to support various lifestyles and then compare that to the amount of land on the earth. As always with the ecologically correct the answer is that we ran out of land a decade ago and will all be dead by next Tuesday. Amazingly enough they do reach one vaguely correct conclusion via a series of woeful misunderstandings.

Their first error is that they regard resources as something that exist ab initio. There is great play made of the fact that there is only so much arable land to go around, and that it is this land that tends to get built on. This whole idea is of course completely ignorant. Resources are created by human beings via technology. As arable means "suitable for ploughing" it is obvious that before we invented the plough and agriculture some 10,000 years ago there was no such thing as "arable land." There was just "land. " Further, we increased the supply of arable land with the invention of deep ploughing methods by varied tribes and the associated deforestation of northern Europe, again with the invention of the cast iron plough which allowed the prairies to be farmed and did it yet again last decade in opening up the Brazilian Cerrado with acid resistant strains of crop.

Well, yes, everybody here has read Julian Simon and so knows all of this already. It doesn't seem to have reached Harvard yet.

Leaving aside their failure to understand the definition of a resource, there are a few other oddities in the formulation.

"Because of inconclusive data about the long term area demand of nuclear power, we include thermal nuclear energy at par with fossil energy."

Huh? In later calculations by the authors of the paper we are told that for humanity as a whole to enjoy an American lifestyle we would need four more earths. And of the 23 acres that each person needs to enjoy that lifestyle, 15 are devoted to recycling the CO2 emitted by energy production. See, you have to get your retaliation in early: can't have someone saying, "OK, let's solve this thing by going nuclear" now can we? That would be like using technology to repair the damage we are doing to Gaia. Tsk tsk. So simply state at the outset that nuclear equals fossil even if nuclear emits no CO2. This must be why nuclear power in the UK pays the Climate Change Levy, their version of a carbon tax based on CO2 emissions.

So within the concept of ecological footprints we have already found one gross misunderstanding of economics and a nice piece of weaseling argument to exclude nuclear power from the solution. There is also a surprising ignorance of both mathematics and/or chemistry. For after we have worked out how much land is used for housing, for food, for timber, for transport and obviously for absorption of CO2, we then add all of these together. Errm, gentlemen, I'll agree that you have many more letters after your names than I do, but are you really claiming that there are different types of CO2? That the CO2 absorbed by the forest that grows the timber I build my house out of is somehow different from the CO2 not emitted from the nuke which supplies me energy, or that food crops do not absorb the gases from my car? If you are saying that then I don't believe you. If you are not saying that then we cannot add the land areas together in a simple manner, for each piece of land has multiple uses.

So I fear that this whole idea, the attempt to work out ecological footprints, fails, not just because it is obviously the work of alarmists but because it doesn't even stand up to its own internal logic. Ho hum, back to the drawing board guys, maybe Lester Brown will help out next time.

So why did I say that they reached one vaguely correct conclusion? Well, they make much of the fact that there is not enough land and vegetation out there to absorb all the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere. Call me Mr. Silly if you wish but I thought we already knew that? We have noticed that atmospheric levels are rising and have been for some time. As we were told to after Monica's rather different pollution problem we have moved on and are now discussing whether that rise is important and further wondering what to do if it is. Drs. Soon and Baliunas of this parish have a number of things to say on those very points.

We should not, of course, blame the City Burghers of Santa Monica (well, not unless we pay tax there) for being suckered into this pantomime. As we know, they are so woefully ill-educated in the realities of the world that they still believe rent control is the way to increase the supply of low-cost housing.

Tim Worstall is a writer living in Europe. Visit him at his online home at He recently wrote for TCS about Canvassing Human Rights Abuses around the World.


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