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Environmental Impacts & Consumption Essay

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In an article examining resource consumption in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, Collins, et al. (2006) provide a critique of the tool known as the Ecological Footprint that has, in recent years, gained increasing currency in the assessment of anthropogenic environmental impact, as well as a brief history of its development and its implementation. By thoroughly scrutinizing the limitations and implications of Footprint methodology, Collins, et al. concluded which critical areas of consumption need to be addressed in Cardiff. Ultimately, the researchers’ goal is to provide a comprehensive value assessment of the Ecological Footprint methodology in relation to its utility in the development of sustainability policies.

The article in question is entitled, “The Environmental Impacts of Consumption at a Subnational Level: The Ecological Footprint of Cardiff,” by John Barrett, Andrea Collins, Andrew Flynn, and Thomas Wiedmann. It was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2006. In it, Collins, et al, discussed the history of the Ecological Footprinting methodology, noting that it is premised on the idea that the planet has a limited ability to provide for all human resource demands.

Therefore, any policy decisions regarding resource use must take this into account by balancing planetary limits against economic growth. Collins, et al, posited that humanity is currently in a state of overshoot, in which natural capital is being used faster than the planet can replenish it.

Despite the strong interest which governments have taken to the use of Ecological Footprint as a sustainability indicator, it faces some criticism: Some have argued that it does not accurately reflect the impact of human consumption. Others maintain that it does not apportion the responsibility for impact in any useful manner. Regardless, Collins et al asserted that the Ecological Footprint is at the very least, useful to policy makers due to its power to communicate the link between consumption and impact.

One of the key themes of the article was the need for measurements of sustainability and resource use to be fair and legitimate ones. In effect, the concern was that for any meaningful changes to be made regarding improving matters of sustainability in the city of Cardiff (or any other city for that matter) it would be necessary that data obtained is actually useful to the formulation of sustainability policy any resource use.

To do otherwise, would only stymie progress in these areas or result in what other pundits have called, “greenwashing” which is the illusory notion of sustainability. As such, footprinting is designed to use standardized official and annual statistics and expenditure data to establish substantial links between personal consumption and environmental impacts, with resource use being the chain between them.

As a city that has become driven primarily by finance, retail and tourism as its chief economic sectors, Cardiff’s participation in manufacturing has declined significantly over the years and developed a moderately prosperous lifestyle. However, its residents live an unsustainable lifestyle, using three times the average “earthshare,” and placing them well into overshoot. Furthermore, a majority of the resource consumption residents engage in is derived from food, travel, energy and consumables. The result is that dramatic changes will be necessary to address this.

Ultimately, it is personal consumption rather than local industry that puts Cardiff residents in the position of being unequitable in their use of resources, and requires reframing social practices and institutional structures to undo these habits. These consumption domains include food and drink, with the primary area of concern being energy-intense preparation methods; transport, with concern directed towards private transportation; and tourism, with their intense reliance on catered food being of concern.

In conclusion, Collins, et al, argued that Footprinting is of great utility in measuring impacts, but it must also be balanced against recognition of contexts which consumption should be set against: In the case of Cardiff, it should not be used to flatten the individual experiences of consumption, nor should its organizational nuances be neglected in assessing impacts. Simply put, the Footprint methodology is only as useful as the context it is set against, and the extent to which it is refined for socio-economic groups or geographic/subnational ones.

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