Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A traditionally built footprint

As I mentioned in my Earth Day post, I like to regularly (some might say obsessively) check my ecological footprint through websites such as Carbonfund or MyFootprint. And just as regularly, I'm frustrated to find that, even after taking virtually all the steps in 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, I'm still an energy hog by global standards. Last time I checked my footprint on Global Footprint Network, the site informed me that if everyone on Earth lived the way I do, it would take over 3 planets' worth of resources to support us all. I went back and tweaked my answers, trying to see what would happen if I ate fewer animal products or drove a bit less, but nothing seemed to make a significant difference.

As I tried to figure out just what I was doing wrong, it occurred to me that maybe it's not me, individually; maybe it's my whole country.  In other words, maybe any American is bound to use more resources, simply because of the way our society is structured. So I tried running a sample footprint for a 100 percent virtuous American—someone who was making the most ecologically responsible choices about everything, from food to home to transportation.  And what do you know, I found that even my hypothetical Lady Virtue was using up more than three Earths' worth of resources.

So I decided to try the same experiment with a fictitious character from a different country.  Lately I've been reading my way through the delightful Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith, which is set in Botswana.  So I decided to make Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of that series, the star of my new hypothetical scenario.  Mma Ramotswe, as she is known, lives in a small house with electricity and running water.  At first she lives alone; later she shares the house with a husband and two foster children.  She drives a vehicle described as a "tiny white van," and her diet includes plenty of fresh produce, but also meat, dairy, and lots of tea and fruitcake.  I decided to enter her moderately virtuous life just as it's presented in the books and see how it registered on the Earth-o-meter.  Data for Botswana isn't available on the Global Footprint Network, so I had to approximate using its nearest neighbor, South Africa, and make educated guesses about how much electricity, gasoline, and other resources Mma Ramotswe's lifestyle would use.  The result?  Mma Ramostwe, though a "traditionally built" lady (size 22), apparently treads much more lightly on the planet than I do.  If we all lived as she does, the website claims, we could all manage with just over one Earth.

So what's to be learned from this?  Not, presumably, that we should all move to Bostwana if we want to reduce our environmental impact.  More likely, that the most important changes eco-conscious Americans can make to reduce their environmental impact need to take place on a societal, rather than an individual, level.  Not just choosing renewable energy in your own home, but promoting the wider use of renewable energy across the country; not just eating local produce, but pushing for changes to the way farms are run in America.  And in the meantime, perhaps, not beating ourselves up too much over getting a score of three-plus Earths on the footprint quiz.  Marked on a curve, it's not as bad as it seems.
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