For those talking about climate change, the environment, resilience and sustainability, a term known as environmental footprint, often enters the discussion. For use here, environmental footprint refers to the impact or damage, a person’s lifestyle has on the natural world - water, soil, air. These impacts are the consequences of driving a car, food choices, size of home, vacation and whatever else a person does that impacts the natural world.
Important to add, that footprint should include impact and damage on the well being of society. One’s lifestyle not only affects the natural world, it also affects public health, politics and social cohesion.
The more energy and resources one uses, the bigger the environmental footprint. Big homes with few residents and cars cause more damage to the planet than a modest home and a bike. Beef has a bigger footprint than beets.
A map of the world that compares countries and their environmental footprints, shows the United States stands out. The average person in the United States uses far more resources than the average person in almost any other country, even affluent countries like Sweden or Japan.
Closely related to environmental footprint, a newer term, “one earth lifestyle,” provides a more nuanced appraisal of how we live. A one earth lifestyle means a lifestyle where a person consumes only their share [approx 1/7 billionth] of the world’s sustainable resources and planet earth could safely process the waste of 7 billion one earth lifestyles.
There are many aspects to any lifestyle such as food, shelter, transportation, recreation, employment. The attributes of a lifestyle all add up and affect the environment and community.
Its important for people to gain an understanding of how their lifestyle affects both the social and natural environments. Putting that awareness into the context of a one earth lifestyle is a useful, if sobering task, that can help motivate people to make lifestyle adjustments for reducing their footprint to a sustainable level.
Most people take affluence and convenience for granted and would be surprised to find their footprint exceeds a one earth lifestyle by, perhaps a wide margin. Most of the world does not live like middle class America, although most people all over the world would like to. Its clear, the earth cannot support its current human cargo, even with billions living far less than one earth lifestyle.
Not surprisingly, there are thoughtful surveys on line to help those with a concern to gain an idea what fraction of an earth or how many planet earths would be needed to support their own personal lifestyle.
What would a one earth lifestyle look like? What might one seven billionth of the global pie look like?
I have taken such as survey and was moderately impressed with the questions. It did not cover all the bases, certainly, but I would recommend that survey to others. Its educational, simply answering the questions most of us never think about but are important. I will describe highlights of the survey in terms of my own answers and results and would encourage the reader to extrapolate their own answers to the survey questions. I am using www.footprintcalculator.org/
I have no financial interest in this entity and know only about the group from what is described on their website. Again, its not a perfect survey but it does have educational value and the items I mention below are only part of the survey. Here we go.
• Diet is a big deal and this calculator asks a lot of questions. Meat or veggie, what kind of meat, local, processed, packaged, how often? I am veggie, not quite vegan, eggs from my own hens and a pound of cheese lasts a month.
• Another set of questions is about housing. How many people live in your house? What kind of residence? Is it an apartment, townhome, detached house. Other questions ask about energy efficiency and how many people live the house. I own my own home, it is a modest detached house, it has insulation all around, its all electric, has significant passive solar heating and four people live here.
• A survey could ask a lot more questions about shelter.
• Another question, where does your electricity come from? Here in the Northwest, its by far mostly hydro and even hydro has a footprint. I have a solar hot water heater and heat pump.
• Another set of questions is about how much trash does one create and related, how often does one buy clothes, appliances, electronics, books, magazines. My responses, very little of any of the above.
• Transportation is another big deal. The survey asks about what kind of a car one has and what is its gas mileage. How much is it used or does one use public transportation and how often. How many hours per year in a jet plane. For me, I drive a car rarely, maybe 5 days a year. Bike trip last year I took my bike to Arizona on Amtrak and returned on Amtrak. Last year I had two return plane flights to Texas. Around town, I use a bike. I borrowed a friend’s truck for a load of llama poop.
• There are other questions aboout diet, shelter, what do we buy, transportation are all good ones. My results came out to about .9 earths to support my fair share lifestyle - veggie, modest home shared with 3 others, don’t really buy new much of anything, ride a bike, fly only occasionally.
Not to boast or be critical, but I use a lot less of just about everything than even most of my progressive friends (see my house above), and compared to the average middle class lifestyle in the US, they are modest. I have a contact who I would guess, has a 20 earth lifestyle with multiple homes, cars, trips all over the world, lots of solo driving. Even his level of consumption is spare change compared to really wealthy people.
Again, the survey could be more detailed, I don’t know their methodology, but I trust the calculation does have some validity.
My take home message for this blog, we all know about climate change and a natural world in decline. We are well aware of many social and political challenges that affect us all. Virtually all of the deepening trends we face are easily traced to lifestyles that consume too many resources and produce too much waste. Having an honest look at the damage caused by our own lifestyles, in terms of a one earth lifestyle, is a helpful if intimidating move towards creating homes, neighborhoods, economy and culture that are green and resilient.
Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home, including food, energy, water, and culture. Read a draft preface for his forthcoming book, Notes from the Suburban Frontier at www.SuburbanPermaculture.org. He is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. Find his contact info, CV and more topics he can address on his website, and click here to read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.
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