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11th June 2017: Can a regular suburban family be biodiversity-neutral?

We are a regular family of four: Mummy, Daddy, and two kids (4-years-old and 1-year old). We live in suburban Brisbane, Australia and will move into a new home in the suburb of Carindale on 19th June 2017. This blog is about our attempts to make our lives have a zero net impact on biodiversity. We are not going to live wild by rejecting technology, or moan about the urban-centrism of today’s environmental movement. I fully appreciate these perspectives, but they do risk sending a message that we cannot tread lightly on this earth without living peasant-like, and turning the vast majority of people off trying to make an effort. My purpose here is to share our experiences, not to lecture anyone. I am a professional conservation scientist, yet I am remarkably bad at thinking about my own impact on biodiversity. I want to learn more about how to do better.

We are wealthy – our net household income is about $150,000, putting us in the 81st percentile of Australians, and the 99.9th percentile of world household income. We recognise this means we have the freedom to devote financial and time resources to this issue in a way that many families do not, but it will be interesting to see how many of the changes that we make actually incur a financial cost.

Our new home is on 770m² of land, and this made me feel especially guilty about our biodiversity footprint. Our current property is on 290m², and I have published work advocating for high density compact design of urban landscapes to minimise the biodiversity footprint of city-dwellers. Why did I make this apparently hypocritical choice? Well, we moved to a home on a larger plot so that our children could spend more time outdoors playing in the back yard, with benefits for their physical activity, reduced time in front of screens, and more experiences of nature (for all the family).

Our life choices (suburban home, having a family) are typical of millions of suburban families all over the world – our blog is written from the perspective of a regular family who have decided not to live “wild”, but to try to work out how to minimise our impact on biodiversity in all aspects of our regular suburban lives. No doubt we will mostly get it wrong, but we’ll have fun trying.

What do I mean by biodiversity footprint? I mean the impact that our lives have on biodiversity (“biodiversity” means the plants and animals naturally occurring in an area). For example, the 770m² of land on which our new home sits was once Eucalypt woodland supporting a wide range of native plants and animals such as koalas. The food we eat is harvested from agricultural fields, and to make these fields, the natural vegetation that originally covered the areas has been cleared. Electricity is often produced using fossil fuels, the burning of which impacts biodiversity by changing the world’s climate at a rapid rate. The materials we buy and throw away (plastics, metals, wood, fibres) all had to be produced somewhere, and all had an impact on biodiversity by causing the clearance of vegetation, overharvesting of natural populations, or energy use.

To what extent can a regular suburban family reduce these impacts by making careful choices? Can we have a major impact on our own footprint without giving up our wealthy suburban lifestyle, or will our best efforts only result in tiny reduction in our biodiversity footprint?

Richard Fuller