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Ghost Acres

— October 31, 2019

Why is it truly frightening to depend on ghost acres? Because it could be fatal…

You’ve probably heard it said that if everyone lived as Americans do, it would take five Earths to satisfy that level of resource use. Most other nations have a smaller number of “Earth” units; if everyone lived as they do in India, for example, we could all get by on 0.7 “Earths,” a reasonably sustainable number. Overall, though, we humans are tearing through the planet’s ecosystems 1.75 times faster than they can regenerate themselves naturally. Since we’re only living on one Earth, how is such a figure even possible? This is where ghost acres fill in the gap.

For most of the time we’ve existed as a species, people met their needs locally. They gathered or grew plants, hunted or herded, and crafted items from materials obtained not too far from where they lived and died, and they disposed of their waste products the same way. Not every region had the same carrying capacity. More people lived where resources abounded. Fewer people lived where there wasn’t enough to support them. Trade routes to distant lands existed, but people traded mostly for luxury items, not everyday needs.

Eventually, local resources weren’t enough. Small, crowded polities needed more food than they could grow in order to feed everyone. Importing from somewhere else was the obvious next step. Colonial England wasn’t the first to rely on imports from ghost acres – faraway, unseen lands – to support their population, but they kicked it into overdrive. First, they imported food and raw materials from colonies across the world, eventually using North America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific as their ghost acres separated from the mother country by great distances. Then, they pioneered the industrial exploitation of ghost acres separated in time, by mining and burning coal to release solar energy deposits from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Five identical images of the Earth seen from space.
It would take “five earths” to satisfy a global population at the level of consumption that the United States currently enjoys. That’s a lot of ghost acres! Combined image by the author, comprised of public domain images. Earth photo created by NASA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Background image by Dorothe, courtesy of

There are a multitude of ways that people have relied on ghost acres in modern times.

In the 19th century, Londoners depended upon ghost acres for soap. Millions of sheep raised on the Eurasian steppes, Great Plains, and Australia were processed for more tallow than England could produce on its own, providing inexpensive feedstock for industry, making soap cheaper than it probably should have been.

When we ship our trash to impoverished countries overseas with lax labor and environmental laws instead of processing it in our own communities, we’re using them as ghost acres.

Our addiction to fossil fuels means we’re dependent upon ghost acres from ages ago for today’s productivity. Consider how much American farmland we’d need to devote to corn and soy in order to completely replace gasoline with biofuels, and you can get some idea of how many ghost acres we have supplying us with modern day needs.

Fishing the oceans for food is a kind of ghost acre exploitation; one which may not continue much longer.

Offshoring our manufacturing to Asian sweatshops uses faraway ghost acres, not only to rid ourselves of unsightly factory districts, but to absorb the air and water pollution that go hand in hand with the production of vast amounts of industrial trinkets.

Trade itself, of items needed for day-to-day living, means that trading partners rely on ghost acres in other regions producing what our own communities can’t or won’t produce for themselves.

There’s even an entrepreneur floating the idea of using ghost acres to house refugees.

Why is it a big deal to live this way? Because you can’t count on the globalized trade system always being there to supply what we need. That’s why ghost acres are well and truly frightening. War, regime changes, economic breakdown, ecological destruction, overexploitation, civil unrest, revolutions, and any kind of chaos can pull it all down around our feet – and instability is the wave of the future. Ghost acres allow for artificially inflated carrying capacity, and once the extra resources slip away, the inevitable “right sizing” of the population won’t be pretty. The bigger they grow, the harder they fall, and right now, we’re bigger than ever.

So, as you turn up the spooky music and hand out the child-labor chocolate tonight, consider what it means to depend on ghost acres with a population of 327 million souls. How wispy and fragile our economy is, like the veil between the worlds.

Related: Coal: Dark Magic


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Hazardous Travels: A Ship’s Tale of U.S. Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy
London’s Soap Industry and the Development of Global Ghost Acres in the Nineteenth Century
Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity
The Commodification of Wildness and its Consequences
July 29: Earth Overshoot Day 2019 is the Earliest Ever
Catton, William R. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1982. Print.

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