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

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 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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  1. According to the website my footprint comes to 0.78 Earths. I'm not sure I believe this makes any sense as like everyone else we consume some amount of fossil fuel both directly and indirectly, and actually there is no sustainable level of consumption of a limited resource.

    Anyway, being vegan, fairly thrifty with heating, rarely using any motorized vehicles at all, and not chucking things out until they can't be repaired genuinely add up to lowering ones impact, and the number they generated for us reflects this.

    I'm amused by your saying that you "do not get onto a plane for a short round trip". It's the long haul flights which produce the most harm, for the simple reason that they burn more fuel. A long haul flight is just the same as a short haul flight, but with several more hours of fuel consumption packed in between the take-off and landing. Many people excuse their own consumption as being somehow more justifiable than that of other people, but is it really so ?

    But let's take a step back from this. Do we believe that a website sponsored by Coca Cola and a construction company whose latest proudest boast on their own website concerns a contract for engineering concerned with exploiting oil sands really has our best interests at heart ?

    Personally, I think this is more of a green-washing exercise. The emphasis on "offsetting" as a solution is of course itself an example of green-washing. It's a way of encouraging people to continue to consume, but to feel OK about it because they've "done something". It does not tackle the root cause of the problem, which remains over consumption.

  2. Thanks David. I too share your reaction to the fact that Coke and an environmentally dubious construction giant are behind this project. Greenwash? Well some of that surely, but it also can happen that the foundation may be indeed totally independent of the founding company or interest. Sometimes. Still it makes one (say me) a bit queasy, as you say.

    In reaction, my view is that I try to be not too terribly hasty to judge any civil society effort such as this for taking money from what might be the murkier side of the top 1%. We have for example the current situation in which the UNEP's Share the Road program is sponsored by the FIA, the International Automobile Federation, the folks who bring us Formula 1, high speed, high risk, high danger and a few other like goodies.

    As someone who has been notably ineffective for some years in getting support from either industry or civil society for any of our World Streets or New Mobility Agenda projects, I can understand the temptation. This is hard work and it costs quite a lot to do a good job. How to navigate in these troubled waters? I guess we have to leave it to each of us trying to make a contribution to do the we can, and in the process, hopefully, to do all in our power to ensure our full independence of the sponsor's own agenda (whatever that might be). For me and our work it would be an easy choice: give us the money and go away. We will announce your gift publicly , say thanks publicly, and then get back to our announced agenda without dropping a step. (I am still waiting for the phone to ring on this.)

    That said, the basic principle of the eco footprint is one I applaud: that of helping us to audit our actual choices and behaviour to see perhaps if we might introduce changes to get us closer to the right side of the ledger. That's why I try it once a year. (But while I am at it, let me note that I also would like to see their site and procedure cleaned up for easier, more transparent use. It's as if those in charge turned the job over to some web guy and the just went along with what was done. I hope they will clean it up. Their good idea merits more attention on this end.)

    Finally your point about my statement: "I’m amused by your saying that you “do not get onto a plane for a short round trip”" is maybe worth brief comment. For starts I am glad that I was able to amuse you. I was, as often is the case, too cryptic. What I was trying to say there is that: (a) I do not get on a plane, (b) deliver my talk, and (c) then get back to the airport without missing a beat for the trip home. No matter what the distance might be. In any event and to avoid this ambiguity, I have just gone into today's piece and substituted for the original "The bottom line is that I do not get onto a plane for a quick in/out round trip to anywhere."

    Hope that's better.


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