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Bigfoot Prints
Wednesday, Mar 17, 2004 (10:48 AM)

Dear Umbra,

I just took the environmental impact quiz over at www.myfootprint.org, feeling rather confident that I've been doing my part to minimize my personal impact on environmental despoliation. But my results weren't reassuring. My ecological footprint is 9 acres, which is surely much better than the U.S. national average of 24 acres per person, but still twice what the planet could sustain. In short, the quiz tells me, if everyone lived like me, we would need two planets. I'm not sure I can make any more big changes — I take public transportation when I can, I've kept my ten-year-old Honda, which still gets about 35 mpg, I'm vegetarian, I choose locally-produced goods whenever possible. I don't know what else I can do. After several years of effort to "live green," am I still such a big part of the problem?


Dearest Carrie,

Maybe we just need two planets. Maybe that's the point of the ecological footprint quiz: to find out how many planets we need so that NASA can develop an appropriate space program.

For those of you who haven't taken the quiz, it's an online survey about living habits. You answer multiple-choice questions, the computer tallies the result and tells you how many planets we would need, and then you feel guilty. Redefining Progress and Earth Day developed an elaborate calculator that incorporates complex country-based data into your responses, and the components of the calculator make it quite difficult to get a one-planet result (though I did it by cheating). In the United States, environmental impacts indirectly linked to your personal consumption are what put you on the two-planet program. You may drive very little, but roads are still included in your footprint, as are the impacts of conventional food and the military-industrial complex. So the footprint calculator places your individual footprint in a larger context of long-term effects. Seen in this light, the name of the calculator is somewhat misleading: it really calculates your footprint within the context of your country.

Leaving you feeling hopeless is not the intent of the exercise. Instead you're meant to be motivated to change your life and work to change your community.

Messages from environmental organizations can be confusing, and The Footprint Quiz is guilty on this score. We tend to focus on the vital impact of individual choices and encourage individuals to consider the impact of their consumption habits on environmental destruction or resource degradation. Folks who heed this message gradually become obsessed with their own actions as the crux of good and evil. Projects like the Footprint encourage this mindset. While looking inward to examine our car mileage and food choices is, in aggregate, a powerful tool for harm reduction, such an exclusively personal examination leaves us feeling better but still alone.

The human population as a whole has outstripped the planet's capacity by about 35%, according to Redefining Progress's calculations. Until we find another planet, we're stuck here, forced to work together. An individual decision to drive less is vital, and it's true that if all Americans reduced yearly mileage the world would be a better place. But simply opting out of driving ourselves does not make for a better rapid-transit system — for this we must become advocates. Opting out is a choice, but opting in is still a vital aspect of change. To finally answer your question, we are all part of the problem, but we are also the solution.



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Past Entries
02/11 Every Drop Counts...
02/17 The Eternal Conundrum: Paper or Plastic?
02/23 D.I.Y.
02/25 A Cleaner Clunker?
02/27 The Diesel in the Details
03/01 Downside of Organic Produce?
03/03 Not Always Greener
03/05 Trash Art: the Director's Cut
03/08 The Rising Stocks of Anti-Ox
03/10 Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
03/12 Something's Fishy
03/15 The Environmentalist's New Clothes
03/17 Bigfoot Prints
03/22 Drinking Your (Re)fill
03/24 Fresh Frozen
03/26 Hydroponic Attacks