My environmental footprint
February 21, 2011, 1:27 am
Filed under: Research | Tags:

According to, it would take 3.9 planet earths if everyone lived like I do. The site estimates that 17.4 global acres of the earth’s productive area is dedicated to supporting my lifestyle, primarily for energy, and there are 18.3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions) with my name on them. To reduce my footprint, the site suggests that I reduce my consumption of animal products (i.e. dairy as I’m already a vegetarian), use less packaging or more post-consumer content packaging, use renewable energy, use more efficient appliances, and vacation locally instead of by plane.

According to, it would take 2.92 earths “if everyone on the planet lived my lifestyle.” Things I could do from the (nonpersonalized) list include use a bike, weatherproof my home, install a tankless water heater, turn off my (work) computer when not in use, purchase green electricity, take shorter showers, and get my office to use post-consumer recycled paper and obey the law and recycle the paper and plastic we use.

Now, keep in mind, that I already walk or take public transit just about everywhere (I don’t own a car). I wash my clothes at a laundromat, with cold water only, and I air dry. I live in a four-unit building. I rarely buy new things except when something needs to be replaced (e.g. my iPod is from 2005, and my laptop is from 2004). I get my food from a natural food store, usually organic and local as the selection allows, or from my local CSA (for better or worse); and I cook at least half of my meals from fresh ingredients and buy the rest from non-chain restaurants. I usually drink tap water, plus maybe a half gallon of juice per week and one or two pints of beer — very little soda, though I did recently buy a machine that makes seltzer out of tapwater. I don’t have a TV, dish washer, clothes washer, or dryer. Signing up for “green” electricity would be an easy next step, which I don’t really have a good excuse for not having done, but I’m not sure how much that would change my footprint.

It’s true that these are not the most accurate tests in the world, but let’s say that I’m better than they think and it only would take a mere two earths if everyone lived my lifestyle. That is still one earth more than we have, n’est-ce pas? And, let’s be honest, mine is a hard lifestyle to follow for people who don’t have the transit and food options of New York City. So is there hope? What are we to do if even after doing so much, it still isn’t enough?

Donald Norman’s seminal book The Design of Everyday Things identifies accurate mental models and systems of feedback as two essentials of good design. And these two essentials are conspicuously absent from the broad conversation on sustainability. When I sort out my plastic and place it on the curb, I get no feedback as to whether it’s made any difference, or if so how much, and the same when I buy local food vs organic food from thousands of miles away, so it’s hard for me to determine if I should expend my limited time and money and attention on these or other pursuits. And without an accurate mental model of the effects of my actions, and where the greatest benefit lies at the lowest cost to me, then the effectiveness of my efforts are limited.

I’ll continue my research and report back in a future post. In the meantime, please put your suggestions — and your footprints — in the comments below.


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In equatorial Africa, where people living in the rainforest can grow almost all of their own food and get protein from their own farm animals and ‘sustainably’ (one could argue) hunted bush animals, brush garnered from clearing fields is burned with very large amounts of kerosene. Cash crops in the same rainforest are doused with noxious pesticides in chemical sprayers. So how does that even out, then, with carbon footprint per hectare? And in terms of environmental conservation, NGOs sometimes decide that environment trumps people and moves those who are living sustainably in ‘more primitive’ ways out of ancestral habitat into places where they don’t know how to live with the same balance. In having more choice, we set up more obstacles for ourselves in terms of having to make the rights ones. But the luxury of being able to do that, in large liberal-leaning cities, resonates. Outside of those, either you drive everywhere or you can barely get to work on barely-existent public transport. If ‘development’ on a global scale increases choice without increasing possibility to make ‘greener’ choices (or incentive to do so, at equal/reduced costs) – then – ?

Comment by jas

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