Footprinting myself – and my country

If everyone lived like me, we’d need 4.6 Earths to sustain our lifestyles.

This revelation, using the Global Footprint Network’s online calculator, was a punch in the gut.

I’d always assumed my footprint was reasonably small (“other than my air travel, of course, which obviously is a human right”). I don’t own a car. I eat meat extremely rarely. I don’t own a home or appliances or furniture. I seem to be buying less and less in the way of consumer goods than ever before.

Still, turns out I’m the environmental equivalent of the children in Lake Wobegon – suffering from delusions of above average-ness.

“Wow,” I thought. “Is my air travel really that bad? I don’t even fly as much as a lot of people I know.” (Lesson 1: Cognitive biases, like resetting your standards based on what your immediate circle is doing, apply to all of us.)

But when I sadly took my flights down to zero (because I have family and close friends spread over three continents, inexpensive air travel has become the glue of my life), I was “only” down to 3.6 Earths.

“Hmm. I thought air travel was supposed to be by far the worst… Maybe if I never got in a car or bus again?”

But no effect. Wow.

I tried cutting out all dairy (goodbye cheese…) – and increased my percentage of locally sourced, fresh and unprocessed food to “most” (I’d estimated “half”, which I think is probably on the higher side for many people in developed countries). Here came a significant effect – I was down to 3.3 Earths. (Going 100% local and fresh didn’t help, which was good news to me from a behavioral change perspective. Even moderate changes help.)

Another good cut, taking me down to 3 Earths, was never buying another book, magazine or other print publication again (sigh), being scrupulous not only about recycling but also buying only recycled paper, plastic and aluminum, and eliminating purchases of electronics (good thing I returned the iPad then).

But still at 3 Earths. What now?

“I know. It’s my house. How about if I move to an eco-friendly house and buy 100% renewable electricity and don’t use much of it?”

Again, surprise – very little effect – likely because my housing footprint was already calculated as quite low since I rent and live in a dense urban area. But in general, housing, and energy and fuel use in particular, is without question a major consumer of global resources.

In desperation, I unplugged myself from the grid. I stopped eating and moving altogether. Okay – that last wasn’t really an option – but if it had been, I would have taken it. What to do?

And still 3 Earths.

It turns out that one single thing is enough, on its own, to mean I use three times my fair share of the world’s resources. That is the fact that I live in the United States.*

In other words. most of my footprint decisions have already been made by sheer accident of birth. And I continue to support these as I pay taxes and make use of the wonderful and resource-intensive array of public and private services available to me in the U.S. of A. – from highways to national parks, to bookstores to restaurants.

And it’s this stark realization that made it clearer to me than anything else how important policy is – and why the U.S. Senate’s refusal to take a global leadership position on climate change is so very disappointing – and frightening.

*At the time of taking the quiz and writing much of this – back in the UK now, which is slightly but not much better.

2 thoughts on “Footprinting myself – and my country

  1. This was great. I could really feel you when I read, and enjoyed seeing the choices you would make. Being in “South Africa” (the only African country on the calculator), my earth toll was less. One thing they are missing — a diet of entirely chocolate can reduce your footprint by over 2/3.

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