Ecological footprinting is a regular required exercise in my Ecology and Ecology for Architects courses. I ask my students to use the ecological footprinting tool created by the Center for Sustainable Economy to calculate how many earths their lifestyle would require to be sustainable. I also ask them to profile an older relative (for most students, a parent) so that we can compare impacts across generations. The results of this exercise are always interesting and a topic for another post, because this post is about my own results: every semester that I ask my students to estimate their footprint I also estimate my own.
So my results for 2015-2016 (approximately the last year from April to April) are in. If everyone on the earth lived the lifestyle that I live, we would need a total of 2.41 Earths. This is not a good result. It certainly suggests that life as I live it is not sustainable. Why can’t I — as an ecology professor — manage to be sustainable, and what does my footprint tell us about the general nature of our society?
Here are the overall acreage requirements needed to sustain my lifestyle:
I am actually down a few acres this year, which perhaps is something to be slightly proud of. And as the graph above shows, my impact is a heck of a lot lower than the average American. But a closer look suggests that there are still inherent problems in the way I — and pretty much everyone around me — lives.
Not surprisingly, my housing and carbon footprints remain basically unchanged this year relative to last year. Not much has changed in this regard. I still live in a building heated by fossil fuels, but my share of that impact is relatively small given that my family of five occupies only an 1100-square-foot apartment. We get 100% of our electricity from wind power, so heating our home is the big impact captured in this housing footprint. My family owns a car and uses it pretty moderately, and again this year I took no plane flights (which on a larger time scale is unusual because before my two little kids were born I used to take at least one flight a year to visit family and one flight a year to go to an academic conference).
Interestingly, this is the last year that I expect my footprint to be so small in these two categories, as I expect my lifestyle to change a bit. We are looking for a more suitable home for our growing family, and that means two changes that are going to increase my footprint: occupying more area and living in a smaller building. We plan to buy a one- or two-family building, and that change in housing formats probably will be the biggest source of higher impact: small buildings are inherently less energy efficient than big ones. Of course I will also gain more agency in determining the efficiency of my home, so perhaps I can invest in energy efficiency retrofits to whatever home we purchase, but I doubt that even a more efficient small home will outperform the efficiency of my current little apartment.
I also expect that my carbon footprint is likely to increase in coming years as I — and my entire family — emerge from what I would call our “baby constraint years”. With little kids you just don’t travel as much for pleasure and I have avoided traveling as much for work in order not to leave my wife at home for too long with our little kids, so the last few years don’t really represent where my future travel is likely headed. I am excited to be able to take longer family road trips and to return to going to a conference or two each year… but that’s only going to increase my carbon footprint.
The biggest change in my ecological footprint for this year came in my food footprint, which decreased from 20.1 acres to only 6.9 acres. I am not entirely sure that I trust this result, but I believe that I understand where it came from: this year I indicated in the footprint questionnaire that I ate moderate rather than very large portions. This is accurate in the sense that the amount I eat has been on a steady decline in recent years, probably because as I age my caloric requirements have gone down (it’s also interesting to ponder whether being a father has also contributed to lowered caloric needs: constrained more to home I am less likely to be out getting exercise on foot or my bike). But this also reveals a shortcoming of this sort of footprint calculator: there’s too big a jump between possible choices on the survey, and my actual lifestyle probably is changing much more incrementally. So am I heading towards a lower food footprint? Probably, but whether I have actually achieved the low footprint estimated by this calculator is subject to question. Of course what’s working in my favor overall is that I am still mostly vegan, a dietary choice that is inherently less impactful: if everyone on the earth ate like I did, we could pretty easily sustain that impact (assuming that other impactful activities could also be curtailed).
My goods and services footprint increased this year, from 24.1 acres to 31.6 acres. this increase cancelled out a lot — but not all — of the benefits from eating less food. Again there’s this question about whether the very discrete choices on this survey accurately represent change, but my lifestyle has changed in a way that’s likely increasing this footprint: we are throwing out a lot more trash now that we have in the past. This is not due to consuming more discretionary goods — if anything, the need to devote more of our income to the needs of our kids has decreased the amount I spend on myself, and I was pretty frugal to start with — but instead due to the many consumable goods associated with having kids. One of the main metrics used by this ecological footprint tool is the number of garbage bags thrown out weekly, and this number has jumped dramatically over the past few years. We used to use washable diapers but over the past four months that has become really hard to do from a time perspective, so more than ever we produce a lot of diaper waste. Kids also produce a lot of food waste:
— Christopher Jensen (@cxjjensen) April 8, 2016
Despite my best attempts to eat food that my kids rejected, there’s still too much food waste going into our garbage. We also used to compost by saving our food scraps and bringing them weekly to our local green market, but we also have fallen off on that habit due to time constraints. All this leads to more garbage produced, an indication of both higher impacts from production of goods and higher impacts associated with disposing of those goods.
The minor adjustments to my footprint are interesting, but the final number — 2.41 Earths — remains the stark reality. My lifestyle is unsustainable. So what to do about it?
On the personal side there are some steps that I could take, but they are pretty minimal. I could decide to move to another (slightly larger) apartment rather than buying a free-standing home. Or, as I mentioned, I could make sure to have enough cash on hand to make my new free-standing home more efficient (a tough proposition in the already-insanely-expensive housing market of New York City). Honestly, there’s not a whole lot more for us to cut without radically shifting our lifestyle. If we do buy our own home that will allow for one great new sustainable project: home composting. I would really like to get into worm composting if I had the space — a basement or small garage — to support such an endeavor. Somewhat humorously, potty training would also help us out by reducing the really large volume of diaper waste that we produce these days. Our minivan — despite the per-person efficiency with which it moves us from place to place — is the elephant in our unsustainable room; giving up our car and going back to relying solely on bikes and public transportation (which is what we did before family member number five arrived) would probably make the most dramatic reduction in my personal footprint.
A lot of what would support a more sustainable lifestyle for me and my family lies a bit beyond our control. For example, there are some neighborhoods in NYC that are participating in a pilot program for curbside composting. If we lived in such a neighborhood, we could much more easily and efficiently divert our food waste from the landfill stream — where it potentially will lead to the production of methane, a very potential greenhouse gas — and lower our footprint. We would also be greatly aided by laws regarding packaging, as we can’t always control how the items we buy are packaged (although certainly there are options to reduce the packaging of items we buy, such as buying bulk food from our local coop). In terms of housing, the impacts of our future home purchase could be decreased by programs (for example, tax incentives) that would make efficiency retrofits more affordable.
What’s really sobering is how little “room for improvement” our current way of living affords. Short of giving up our car (admittedly possible, but with big sacrifices for us), we don’t have a lot of choices left. Vegan’s already happening. 100% wind power’s already happening. Compact NYC living’s already happening. We “suffer”, as most people in the developed world, from the technologies upon which we depend to support the lifestyle that we live. There’s not a lot of viable ways of sustainably heating a home in the temperate zone, so the only question is how efficiently that home can be heated. All forms of transportation other than biking and walking depend directly or indirectly on the combustion of fossil fuels. To really become sustainable, to bring my personal footprint to at-or-below one earth, I would need to live in a society that employs radically different technologies than those currently employed. And that kind of society has to come from a collective will to become sustainable. Understanding our personal ecological footprints can help us generate that collective will.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