Every year in my ecology courses I have my students complete an ecological footprint analysis of their own lifestyle and the lifestyle of an older relative. I have been asking my students to do these for each of the eight years that I have taught at Pratt Institute, so I have accumulated a lot of data from these exercises. If you are interested in how I use footprinting in my classroom, you can check out this post, although it is a little out-dated (I now use a different footprint calculator, see below).
I also make sure to assess my own ecological footprint using the same calculator as my students. I have never published these results (although I often let my students know what my results are), and I think that I probably should be making these public. Since this activity is usually done in the mid-Spring, this calculation represents my “mid-April to mid-April” 2014-2015 ecological footprint.
For the past four years I have been using the “my footprint” calculator provided by the Center for Sustainable Economy. I like this calculator because it provides a sufficient amount of detail without becoming so granular that it drives my students crazy (or prevents them from completing the questionnaire). There is great quantitative display both as you complete the questionnaire (so you can see the effect of the specifics of your lifestyle) and as final output of footprint data. In particular this calculator is nice because it contains information on the average ecological footprints of people in most major countries, a must for my international students trying to estimate the footprint of their relatives at home. You now must ante up at least one dollar to use this calculator, but I see this as a very nominal fee given the value of this calculator.
So what are my personal results? Well, if everyone lived like I did in 2014-2015, we would need 2.56 earths. Not good! I will give a quick analysis of these results below, but you can also see my results here:
So if you look at my overall acreage requirements, they are all below the United States national average:
Sounds pretty good, if you are relativistically-minded about ecological impacts. My total footprint is just a touch below the average American’s carbon footprint.
What allows my footprint to be so much lower than my fellow Americans? If you look at my data, my savings are lower across the board, but the reasons for these savings vary a lot.
My housing footprint is actually the closest to the national average, which I think indicates how hard it is to lower this footprint. My family of five lives in an 1100-square-foot 1.5-bedroom apartment, but you cannot get away from the fact that even in a 100+ unit building this apartment must be heated by fossil fuels for a substantial portion of the year. If I really wanted to reduce the impact of my current living quarters, I would need to get involved with my co-op board and push for more initiatives to make my building more energy-efficient.
My food footprint is pretty low, and this is not surprising. As a 99% vegan (I eat no meat and no direct dairy or eggs, although I do eat some things with dairy or egg ingredients) my eating habits are inherently low impact, although food is always going to comprise a decent amount of any person’s footprint. This is the one area where there is very little room for improvement, although my family could eat even more organic and local produce than we do.
My goods and services footprint is a lot lower than the national average, which I think is a pretty accurate reflection of my current lifestyle. Raising a family in Brooklyn on a professor’s salary just does not leave a lot of room for over-consuming products, and our relatively-tight budget has prevented us from purchasing very much new stuff over the past year. I personally take a lot of pride in wearing my shoes and clothing until they are truly worn out, so it is not surprising that I fall below the national average. And of course living in such a tiny apartment we are very careful about what possessions we take on. The biggest room for improvement in this area? We still produce a lot of garbage, from the paper diapers we use about 50% of the time (cloth for the other half) to the packaging on the food we eat.
My carbon footprint represents the single largest requirement for acreage in my lifestyle. Although I can perhaps take some pride in the fact that my footprint is less than 50% of the national average, digging a bit deeper into this number leaves me little room for boastful pride. There are some great habits in my lifestyle: I ride my bike to work nearly every day, which substantially reduces my use of automobile and subway transport, and in the past year I have only taken one round-trip flight totalling about 1200 miles. My family also offsets 100% of our electricity footprint by having Green Mountain Energy as our household energy provider. But my footprint is still very large, and it has the potential to be a lot larger. This year we purchased our first car in seven years, and when you have a car, you tend to use it more and more. And had this been the previous year, I would have had at least three times the footprint for air travel, and flying in planes boosts your footprint immensely.
The important thing here is to keep an eye on the final number: 2.56 earths. There is basically 40 acres of ecosystem-service-providing area on the earth to accommodate my activities, but I am consuming nearly 100 acres. My food and housing footprints alone — the ones that I have the littlest room for immediate improvement on — are basically “my share” of the earth’s productive acreage. Everything else — everything associated with my consumption of fossil fuels and goods/services — is above what can be sustained. Could I make lifestyle changes to get my number down to 1.00 earths? Absolutely! But these would be extreme lifestyle changes, ones that might even call into question the potential for me to hold a job as a professor in Brooklyn. As I always tell my students, we all need to lobby for a more sustainable infrastructure, which can only come from more policies that incentivize the technological innovations with the potential to create that infrastructure.A Major Post, Anthropogenic Change, Biomes, Ecological Footprinting, Ecosystem Services, Environmental Justice, Food, MSCI-270, Ecology, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Quantitative Analysis, Resource Consumption, Sustainability