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One Footprint at a Time

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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An average American's ecological footprint of 5.3 planet Earths by category, in an image by Greg Searle/BioRegional North America

Changing light bulbs won’t save the world. That’s what a friend said during a recent debate about the impact of one person’s lifestyle on the planet. My quantitative side grasped that point pronto: even though compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use approximately 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent ones, miniscule changes like these aren’t going to restrain global energy consumption, not when it’s soaring. In 2010, global energy use surged 5.6 percent, the largest increase since the early 70s, and around 500 quadrillion Btu/year (or the same amount of energy in 22,500 million tons of coal.)

Still, my inner Pollyanna and growing feeling of personal responsibility tell me that turning a blind eye to one’s own lifestyle isn’t a solution either. That’s why my question in this blog is simple: Can a suburban family live sustainably? And more specifically, am I?

The answer concerning my own lifestyle is probably “no.” But, I don’t know for sure. I don’t even have a firm concept of what living sustainably looks like, or whether anyone’s calculated a baseline from which to accurately measure this. The most common and accessible tests out there are for a person’s footprint (carbon or ecological), which emerged in the 1990′s as a technique for assessing the sustainability of nations. They are now oriented at the individual level as well.

The idea behind footprinting is calculating human impact on the planet in terms of tons of carbon, acreage used or the amount of resources produced by the Earth in one year, and then translating the statistic into an easy to communicate metric. Such as the one used by the group of scientists at the Global Footprint Network, who analyze the planet’s biological capacity: if everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need about 5 planet Earths to support us.

Daunting indeed.

“Part of the way we calculate a person’s Ecological Footprint is by considering all of the biological materials consumed and all of the carbon dioxide emissions made by them in a year,” says Joy Larson, Senior Project Manager, Global Footprint Network. “All these materials and emissions are then translated into an equivalent number of planet Earths or global hectares, which can be converted into acres.”

Simple enough, right?

Well, I jumped in and took a few of these tests, including ones through the Global Footprint Network, Center for a Sustainable Economy, The Nature Conservancy, and BioRegional. After answering numerous questions about meat consumption, trash production, home size, energy use, and forms and frequency of transportation, I discovered that depending on the test, it takes anywhere from 2.3 to 5.8 planets to support my lifestyle. Not exactly the picture of sustainability.

Actually, no matter how I tweaked my answers (accurately or not), particularly Global Footprint Network’s, I couldn’t get the score close to living within the means of 2 Earths. And don’t assume you’d score better.

“You can’t get your score down to one planet as an American,” explains Larson, noting that a person’s Ecological Footprint includes personal and societal impacts. An individual can choose to make lifestyle changes, such as buying local food, or driving less, but a their Footprint also includes services, such as government assistance, roads and infrastructure, public services, and the military.

About 1.3 or 1.4 planets worth of the average American’s footprint is just paying your taxes, adds Greg Searle, Executive Director, BioRegional North America, a sustainability-focused charity. “You can live in the woods without shelter or electricity and just by paying taxes you have a footprint that is larger than someone living in Cuba.”

The upshot is that living within the means of one planet Earth is difficult in the developed world. So difficult that BioRegional has created the One Planet Living initiative in an effort to marry quality of life and the ability to utilize one’s fair share of resources. North America’s first One Planet Community is being built in Northern California.

“Somebody has to take the first step toward living a 21st century lifestyle and model it for everyone,” says Searle.

Though CFL’s alone won’t save the world (and come with its own hoopla around the phase out of incandescents), that doesn’t mean that small, incremental changes in energy consumption can’t lead to large energy savings. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, if the whole country achieved the electric productivity of the top 10 performing states, such as New York, Alabama, Connecticut and California, it would result in a total savings of 1.2 million gigawatt-hours annually, which is equivalent to 30 percent of our annual electricity use.

Perhaps the first step in achieving this lofty goal of sustainability really is the simple act of changing a bulb.

You can read my previous posts at:

Epiphany from High (Nov 25, 2010)

A Little Research Goes a Long Way (Jan 20, 2011)


Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tomcatbeer 7:04 pm 07/14/2011

    I was chatting with Melissa Lott about sustainability and “green living” in the USA and a point we hit on that I believe is one of – if not “the” – major mindset that hurts the USA and most of the developed world is the belief in a constant Growth economy. Without changing our values as a nation to a Stable economy, one not driven by growth in earnings, productivity, etc. we will not achieve a “1.0 Planets” rating.

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  2. 2. gklott 7:38 pm 07/14/2011

    Recommend comparing this to the 1.5 current consumption outlined in the NYT article “The Earth Is Full” by THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN Published: June 7, 2011

    Do these “earth consumption” equivalents include the total solar energy reaching the earth surface (average global 1-1/3 kW/m²) as a earth resource? After all, all the normal earthly fuels are just stored sunshine and stardust.

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  3. 3. rboyd 1:34 pm 07/25/2011

    To answer your question gklott: The carbon component of the Ecological Footprint is based on CO2 emissions, where CO2 emissions are interpreted as the demand for carbon sequestration capacity from human activities. Some of these emissions are from generating electricity and heating buildings, but the heat that comes from solar energy is another form of heat that is on the Earth’s surface, but there are not CO2 emissions from it and it is not the result of human consumption patterns. That’s according to the Global Footprint Network.

    As for the 1.5 planet Earths statistic in the NYT piece, it refers to the world average Ecological Footprint. The 5 Earths statistic is the same idea, but only if the whole world population had the Ecological Footprint of those in the US.

    Sorry for the delay.

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