The world is going to shit, and I'm part of the problem. There's no doubt about it. I'd like to think I'm part of the solution, but it's just not realistic. Consider: If everybody in the world lived a lifestyle like I do (small, walk-up apartment in New York, no car, subway to work everyday, modest consumption of convenience goods), it would take over 6 planets to sustain our resource needs.
This assessment courtesy of the Ecological Footprint assessment quiz, available from MyFootprint.org. The quiz, which takes less than 10 minutes to complete, helps evaluate what the environmental impact of your lifestyle and consumption habits, captured by the Ecological Footprint indicator. If you've got a second, take the quiz, and then come back and read on.
A Little About the Ecological Footprint
Ecological Footprinting is a methodology of evaluating how big an impact each individual has on the earth (it is also useful for measuring impact for other "units" like cities, companies, and nations), in a set of simple and discrete composite indicators. Based on principles of resource accounting and material flows through systems, Ecological Footprints (EF) try to estimate the impact that each and every individual has on the global environment, specifically in terms of resource use. Initially developed by Dr. Mathis Wackernagel as a PhD thesis, and later refined at Redefining Progress and currently the Global Footprint Network, Ecological Footprints have been widely employed as a tool for helping people (students, concerned community members, business people, government leaders) better understand exactly how resource-intensive our lifestyles can be. While the EF can help you better conceptualize your environmental impact, it is even more beneficial in helping you understand how you might reduce your impact -- by making discrete (though rarely insignificant) changes in your life.
The EF is a great heuristic tool, and among other things, helps set a common standard measure to help judge whether you are doing better or worse in terms of environmental impact over time. That said, it should be noted that Ecological Footprinting is a very imprecise science, reducing and generalizing complex ecological concepts for the sake of comprehensibility. Additionally, the methodology, particularly as it is expressed in simple quizzes, cannot account for every variable in a person's impact on the environment. For example, the Ecological Footprint does a poor job accounting for the impact of persistent toxins in the environment - materials which, once entering an ecosystem, cannot be absorbed and processed by the ecosystem. Similarly, any given EF is a snapshot in time, and will not account for improvements in technology that may make it more efficient to extract resources from nature and process them into the goods or services you consume. To learn a bit more about the methodology itself, see the Global Footprint Network.
As a quick point of disclosure, I spent four months working on the first Ecological Footprinting quizzes while a research assistant at Redefining Progress in 1999.
What My Ecological Footprint Tells Me
I find the best way to take value from the EF quizzes is to first complete the quiz as faithfully as possible, and then go back to the quiz and vary your responses, in order to find out what aspects of your lifestyle have the greatest impact on your Ecological Footprint. In my case, my base EF was a whopping 29 acres -- much bigger than the half-acre lot I grew up on, with its little vegetable plot in the backyard.
So what about my lifestyle causes this impact? There are a few discernible factors:
- I eat meat fairly regularly. Meat is an energy and resource intensive food to raise, process, and deliver to market, particularly when compared to a diet consisting of less meat and more grains and vegetables.
- I live alone. While I don't have a particularly large apartment, living by myself does proportionally increase my share of household related impacts (electricity and water consumption, household waste) when contrasted with multi-person households.
- I travel, by plane, a lot. For both work and pleasure, I travel. Not surprisingly, the environmental cost of air travel is quite significant (think about the equivalent fuel you might consume driving to all of the same destinations to which you fly).
- Commuting via mass transportation and foot. The shared energy burden that public transportation allows can greatly reduce your footprint, and, of course, biking and walking are the most efficient ways of getting from point A to point B.
- Living in a big city. Although this isn't well captured in the MyFootprint quiz, living in urban centers can significantly reduce your environmental impact, when compared with living in the suburbs or in traditional houses not specifically retro-fitted to be environmentally friendly. In cities where residential and commercial uses are mixed, where public services are shared, and generally, efficiently distributed, individuals are able to consume a proportionally smaller share of resources.
- Shopping smart and shopping less. Being aware and trying (although not always succeeding) to shop for products that are locally grown/made, to cut down on energy associated with transport, have minimal packaging, and generally, not buying a lot can help your impact profile.
Already implicit, I would hope, in the EF quiz are changes that an individual can make to lower their total impact. Unfortunately, the choices are rarely as simple as "Paper versus Plastic." More often, these choices are much more core to major lifestyle decisions: where to live, what car to drive, what to eat, how big a house to own. While the choices aren't easy to make, the environmentally healthy choices are generally clear: live near where you work; walk, bike, or take public transport, if possible; buy hybrids and fuel-efficient cars instead of SUVs; eat locally grown food, with as little packaging as possible; eat meat as infrequently as possible; own a smaller house that is equipped with energy-efficient features.
Can You Be Green and Be Happy?
One of the unfortunate bugaboos of the environmental movement is that it is comprised of a bunch of dour, nay-saying party-poopers. The tendency to frame environmentally positive choices as being negative, in terms of requiring a person to make a sacrifice in the quality of their lifestyle, is another unfortunate hallmark of how people understand environmental decision-making. Many environmental choices, however, are net-positives in terms of quality of life, and should be framed as such: a diet richer in grains and vegetables will be healthier than a diet that is red meat-heavy; living closer to work means less commute time and more personal time; mixed use communities tend to be more vibrant and active than commuter suburbs.
That said, it would be naive to think that every environmentally positive decision will also make a person happy. And, of course, the lifestyle choices listed above will only work and last if they are in line with what is fulfilling to an individual in their life.
To read more about how to make personal lifestyle choices that are more green, see Slate.com's Green Challenge.
Personal Choices vs. Political Choices
Unfortunately, for most people living in the U.S., it is very difficult to live with modest environmental impact by making personal choices alone. Unless you are willing to put a good deal of effort in to making your house energy efficient, not drive much, and have good luck aligning your work life and personal life, chances are you'll end up a net-consumer of environmental resources. Certainly this will be true if you are an "average American."
What this requires, for those of us who care about the environment and sustainability, is to be active in advocating political and economic outcomes that can make it easier for everybody to be environmentally more responsible. Such political and economic choices might include promoting community development policies that focus on mixed-use communities, functional downtowns, and useful mass transit systems; supporting a locally-focused food economy and creating incentives for local business to provide good and services locally; buying and promoting alternative energies, including hybrid cars and cleaner energies from the power grid.
The list goes on, and I'll try to spend more time in later posts talking about both personal and political choices that can have a positive impact on the environment and quality of life. Of course, as someone with an EF of 29, I offer this not as preaching, but as part of my own quest to find a happy medium between choices that enrich my life and choices that are environmentally responsible.