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Profligacy, greed or simply don't care?

By Russ Grayson - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

Is it simple profligacy, greed or too much money? That might be the cynic's question following the revelation that Sydney's Eastern Suburbs - that long stretch of beaches, sandstone headlands and suburbia - have a higher than average ecological footprint compared to other regions of the country.

The news was delivered to local councils by University of Sydney researcher, Manfred Lenzen. Using an adaptation of the ecological footprint model of resource and environmental impact estimation, Lenzen has worked out the impact of the Eastern Suburbs and compared it to the situation only a few years previously. The findings? The ecological footprint of the Eastern Suburbs is growing.

The trouble with footprints

Lenzen presented his findings to a public meeting at the University of New South Wales organised by Randwick Council's sustainability education team. He explained how the ecological footprint method of estimating environmental impact has been improved beyond the simple concept developed by Rees and Wackernagel in 1992 to something more sophisticated and inclusive.


Ecological footprinting estimates the impact of the production, consumption and waste disposal of goods and services expressed as the number of hectares of land it would take to sustain a particular lifestyle.

Critics may be right in asserting that the ecological footprint is not a numerically accurate measure; however, given that its main use has been in sustainability education, the figures in hectares that it produces are useful. It is a conceptual tool - more a way of thinking about impacts and lifestyles that a set of mathematically correct figures. Lenzen has refined the method to include the use of input-output analysis, supply chain impact, land disturbance and renewable energy scenarios. This, he says, yields a more detailed picture of the impact of lifestyle and affluence.

Writing in The Ecological Footprint - Issues and Trends (2003; Lanzen M, Murray SA; ISA Research Paper 01-03, University of Sydney), Lanzen describes how the idea of ecological footprint analysis has changed in less than a decade and a half. He writes:

While generally acknowledged as a valuable educational tool that has enriched the sustainability debate, the original ecological footprint is limited as a regional policy and planning tool for ecologically sustainable development because it does not reveal where impacts occur ... the nature and severity of these impacts and how these impacts compare with the self-repair capability of the respective ecosystem. In response, the concept has undergone significant modification.

Even the use of hectares as a measure of the productive area needed to support populations enjoying particular lifestyles had to be revised. The original concept measured this in terms of overseas land productivity. That had to be rejigged to account for the lower productive of Australian land.

The suburban east

From the beaches of Sydney Harbour in the north to the shores of Botany Bay in the south, the Eastern Suburbs accommodates Sydney's second-highest population density. About 48 per cent of the population live in apartments, townhouses and other medium density dwellings. The population is also quite mobile, something that has a lot to do with the large number of renters and the shifting population of UNSW students.


The harbourside area governed by Woolahra Council in the north is the most financially well-off. The affluence gradient declines in a southwards trend through the Waverly and Randwick City Council local government areas.

Overall, Eastern Suburbs residents enjoy economic sufficiency, but areas of wealth and affluence are interspersed with pockets of poverty and need.

Lower socioeconomic enclaves, mainly Housing Commission residential developments, are found in the Randwick municipality and there is an Aboriginal population at La Perouse that suffers from poverty and child behavioural problems like those found in similar populations elsewhere. The mixed demographic reality of the Eastern Suburbs gives the lie to the stereotypical reputation of the region as one of high wealth and its residents as all being economically privileged.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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