Treading Lightly: Thoughts on Reducing your Footprint
By Hannah Solomon-Strauss on 10/03/2012 @ 03:00 PM
I wrote before about small steps we can all take to reduce our footprint—small steps we can all take toward the big goal of halting the progression of climate disruption.
But what exactly IS a footprint? Have you ever considered what of your daily activities contribute to climate disruption and what steps you might take to live a greener lifestyle?
The hyper-technical scientific definition of “carbon footprint” is “the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an organization, event, product or person.” More simply, your footprint—carbon, ecological, or otherwise—is the effect upon the Earth as a result of your lifestyle. If you eat a very meat-heavy diet, take airplanes whenever possible, and rarely recycle, your footprint will be larger than it would be if you engaged in these activities less frequently.
I generally consider myself a pretty green person. I take the train to work and ride my bike to do my grocery shopping, where I buy organic products. I stop by the farmer’s market on my block for local produce (though I also shop at the neighborhood grocery store). I’m a champion recycler, and an even more productive re-user of plastic containers. I turn off the water when I’m not using it, take short showers, and turn off and unplug electronics when I’m not using them. I have a conniption every time I’m made to buy water in a plastic bottle. I try not to buy new things—clothes, phone, computer, and so on—when I don’t “need” to. (The discussion on “need” versus “want” is a whole separate one).
What’s Your Impact?
So, I thought, I’m a pretty green person. With this slightly too-cocky attitude, I took a quiz that would tell me about my carbon footprint.
What a hit to the ego! If everyone lived the way I do, we’d need 2.46 Earths to sustain my lifestyle.
You read that right: 2.46 Earths. Woah. (You can see a breakdown of my results here).
The quiz isn’t just eye-opening for the end result, but also for the questions it asks you to consider along the way. I don’t have a garden. I don’t buy offsets to counteract the carbon emissions from my lifestyle. I don’t eat especially low on the food chain, though I’m not a carnivore. And then there’s that little matter of living in two places and flying back to Chicago every few months for holidays.
What I learned most from this quiz was all the little, easy things I’m not yet doing.If you’re a pro at taking your bags to the grocery store and you’re ready to graduate, the quiz has some excellent suggestions for you to green your lifestyle even further.
The final aspect of the quiz that’s especially interesting is the political aspect. I took the quiz as an American living in Washington, DC. But then I retook it, telling the quiz I now lived in Peru but not changing any of my other answers. With exactly the same answers, my footprint fell off the proverbial cliff. As a Peruvian, we would require only 0.54 Earths to sustain my lifestyle. (See “my” results here)
One huge part of the contribution to my American footprint is all of your American footprints. That is, the US has such a collectively large footprint that it has to be distributed amongst all its citizens, and our numbers are all driven up as a result. A place like Peru has a much smaller collective footprint, so individual footprints are lower too.
The basic idea behind that calculation is this: The American footprint accounts for all 300+ million individuals who live in this country. If we as a country drive more than, say, those who live in Peru; or if we eat more meat; or if we have fewer gardens and require our food to be shipped greater distances—these all add to the American footprint. As one of those 300+ million people living here, I am responsible for a slice of our collective footprint—and so are you. Somehow, even though my actions only contribute a bit to the collective American footprint, it’s even more important for me to focus on living lightly, to reduce as much as possible my contribution. Because, of course, if we all thought this way, the collective footprint wouldn’t be so large.
What can we learn from this?
I learned that both individual and state-level actions are necessary to reduce our collective impact upon the environment. Although climate disruption is sometimes thought of as a big-level issue, it affects everything, all the way down. The fish in the oceans, the plants on land, the animals that eat those plants, even our rivers and lakes—all of this is affected by climate disruption, and all of it can be protected, just a bit more, by every effort to live lightly.
Little individual things go a long way: when you don’t contribute to the growing stockpile of plastic in the landfill or use extra energy by leaving your appliances plugged in, you are doing some good. Although we most certainly need state- and international-level efforts to reduce the United States’ collective footprint, we can also begin to reduce that collective footprint by reducing our own, individual footprints. At this point, every little bit matters.
So what to do?
First, why not take the quiz? Find out exactly where you stand and what areas of your life might be easiest to begin changing.
Then, start simple. I asked you last week to choose one tip for a greener lifestyle. Today, pick another way that you can shrink your footprint. Decide to take action! Say to yourself, ‘This evening when I get home from work, I will change the light bulbs in my house.’ As for me, I resolve to start eating lower on the food chain. MyFootprint.org has some great ideas for how to reduce your carbon footprint.
And then join FCNL as we work to put climate disruption back on the national agenda. Tell the Presidential candidates that you want to hear them talk about the environment. Write to your representatives and tell them to take action toward reducing our collective carbon footprint.
It shouldn’t take over two Earths to maintain my lifestyle. Now’s the time to take steps toward fixing that.