Saturday, December 24, 2011

Op-Ed: Do you know your ecological footprint?

Toward the end of each year, I take a few minutes to run my personal Ecological Footprint scan to see if I can get a handle on how I am doing relative to myself, to others and to the planet. Seems like the least I can do, not less because it does oblige me to think about my life pattern and choices in the greater scheme of things. "Walk the talk", etc., etc. (PS. On a more global basis, to get a feel for where the high scores hang out, this map of earth lights at night will provide you with some good clues.)

And while the Ecological Footprint drill is all very approximate, nonetheless there is , I would say, more than a grain of truth in it. (For more information on how it works, check out http://myfootprint.org/en/about_the_quiz/faq/.)

This year at the end of my drill this year, they put me down as needing "2.19 earths". By this they are telling me that I am overshooting the Earth's biological carrying capacity by more than 50%. Or in other words that if all seven billion of us lived as I do we would need more than another planet-plus to accommodate seven billion "eric brittons" (not a pretty sight). That's clearly not good news, but should I be softly congratulating myself with the thought that it could be worse?

So should I preen my feathers on the grounds that I appear to be doing a lot better than the US average at about 8, or France as a whole at about 5? What about those ecological Swedes (6 but tough climate and spread out populations), Australians (tough climate ethe other way and lots of distances), and most of the rest of Europe in the 5-7 range. Is it time for me to congratulate myself as we enter into the new and challenging year? Am I alright, Jack?

Not exactly. Let’s be honest: the greater part of this relatively decent performance on my part (relatively I say) is not due any personal merit or hard choices I may have been brave or responsible enough to make. Rather it is directly due to the fact that I live in an ecologically favored environment: temperate climate, dense settlement in city center, recent well insulated building, easy walking and biking, good public transport, and very very difficult to use a car in this damn city ( ;-) most of the time even if I wanted to. And that I am not much of a shopper, moderate appetite, vegetable lover, trash sorter, all of that is to the good. But still that’s a big number which hangs a sign on my front door and tells me that I have to do better. Lots better! A while planet better.

So in my search for the culprit, I reran their drill, without this time plugging in to the matrix that I travelled something like 70k km by plane over the year to travel to China, Mexico, Scandinavia, more distant Europe. With that, I am down to 1.37. Stellar! ?? But hey, I did in fact take those plane trips.

How do I, as a would-be sustainability guy, justify this abuse of the planet. Well if you check into http://responsibility.newmobility.org/ you will see how I try to ensure that my long distance travel is somehow modulated and justified. It works like this. The bottom line is that I do not get onto a plane for a quick in/out round trip to anywhere. I make sure that I stay in that place wherever it is for at least one working day for each hour on the plane getting there. This is not always such a great pleasure for the client, who has to pay for that time -- and as a result of this additional financial pressure one of two things happen.

Either they go for it, so I get to spend a week or more for long haul trips observing, talking to people, listening, learning, and sharing the few things that I know that may be of use to my hosts. As you can imagine I learn a lot in the process.

Alternatively they say no "sorry, no budget", in which event I am able to stay home with my family and get around in a, to me, quite comfortable low-carbon high amenity-mode. I do not feel that I am making a sacrifice. To the contrary.

One bit about getting around in far away places, and that is that I tend to take taxis as much as I can? Why? Well it can be comfortable, but also think about this: who knows more about what is happening on the streets of their city than the people who are out in the middle of it al the time, taxi drivers? To me they are a prime source of information and perspective. So I pump them for information in whatever langauge will do the job. (And of course the police so let's always be sure we spend some tim with them to learn about things that most probably we would never have picked up on.)

A final wrinkle on this (relatively) low-carbon work/travel profile, is my use of videoconferencing instead of getting on the plane. In the last year I did it to avoid trips to China, Korea, Uganda and the States. And while it requires a lot of preparatory work and a written supplement to get the message across, it is one way to do our modest best for our poor beleaguered planet.

Not a perfect solution, but that’s the way I am trying to be responsible and still get my job done. (This all reminds me of the immortal words of the philosopher Pogo, when he said (relative to matters concerning exuberant pollution in fact) "We have met the enemy and he is us.")

Now what’s your footprint? You really should know, eh?

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