The first few blocks of pavement are steep enough that apartments look like they’d slide off their foundations with the slightest nudge and drivers reach for the emergency brake at each stop sign. Trudging up the hill with a book-laden backpack is a strain, but the payoff at the top is the view east to San Francisco Bay. Sweat pricks at the back of my neck and my muscles ache, but I’m not trying to drop a dress size or strengthen my calves on this urban hike. I’m reducing my ecological footprint.
The Ecological Footprinting Quiz, designed by the Oakland, California, group Redefining Progress, shows individuals how large a share of the earth’s resources they absorb. Questions on gas mileage, house size, and dining habits pinpoint consumption patterns. Driving long distances requires miles of roads and land devoted to energy production. Living in a large house means developing ground for a foundation and yard. Eating meat translates into the need for pastures where cattle can graze. Quiz results are computed in the number of productive acres—fishing grounds, forests, or agricultural fields—needed to maintain a given lifestyle. Compared with residents of other countries, U.S. citizens require far more than their share of land—an average of twenty-four acres per person. This, on a planet that provides four-and-a-half productive acres for every individual. Canadians use seventeen acres; Italians, nine; Pakistanis, less than two.
Curious about my own impact, I took the test. As I scanned the page, Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” came to mind. You do not have to be good, she writes. Such comforting words when guilt creeps in about the paper plates tossed out at the last party and the bag of pink Styrofoam peanuts that sat in my kitchen waiting to be reused until I finally threw them away. But Mary, be real. I do have to be good. Otherwise, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
If only that were true. The quiz looks like a tax form. In a way it is, tallying up the excesses and economies of the past year, all my environmental virtues and flaws. Clumped into sections covering food, shelter, and mobility, the questions promise rigorous accounting of my weight on the world. A small glimmer of hope flickers, though. I’m a recycling, composting, non-red-meat eater who doesn’t drive much. How bad could it be?
Here’s how judgment day went:
Red meat is resource intensive, so that should help. Well, apparently not that much, as I usually eat chicken or fish once a day. Because I live in agriculture-rich California, it’s easy to buy good vegetables that haven’t traveled far, but claiming that they make up 25 percent of my diet is a stretch. I’m far too fond of burritos and potato chips. Total acres needed to keep me nourished: 5.5
I’m a renter, so I can’t install solar panels or buy an energy efficient refrigerator. An apartment takes up less space than a house, but it’s a roomy unit for just two. Not that great, but about what I expected. Total acres for housing: 4.8
Bring it on. I take the bus or the train almost everywhere and hardly ever drive, except for the weekends. When I do drive, my car gets decent mileage. I’m practically an angel. Wait—I can’t believe I’m getting dinged a sixth of an acre for taking the subway rather than walking. And airplane trips—I hadn’t even thought to count those. My transportation footprint is disappointingly high. Total acres: 3.4
Run through the accounting blender, my grand total was 21. All that effort, and I’m just slightly better than average for an American. If everyone in the world lived as I do, we’d need four-and-a-half additional planets.
Many of the things I worried about most—whether to take paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, if the windows on envelopes are recyclable or should be torn out—didn’t even factor into the calculations. The footprint focuses on the decisions with the biggest impact, not necessarily those looming largest in the popular imagination. In the quiz, an avid recycler gets only a slight acreage reduction for all that aluminum and glass.
After the quiz, I resolved to lose a shoe size or two, but how? Plane trips are my biggest environmental crime—I spent at least fifty hours flying last year—but I can’t skip visiting my sister and her new baby. The apartment’s going to stay the same size for the time being. The months I spent as a vegetarian were the hungriest I’ve ever been. Vegan? Forget it.
Luckily, the quiz lets you bargain. Driving in the city is a recipe for frustration, and the train is packed in the mornings—I can walk the three miles to work more often with little sacrifice. And maybe I’ll pick up some compact fluorescent bulbs on the way. Making sure at least 50 percent of my food is locally grown and unprocessed shouldn’t be too difficult. With all this effort though, I save only three-fourths of an acre. It’s far from sustainable.
There are other ways to work toward a healthier planet. “Choices people make are important, but there are also institutions that dictate the kind of house we live in, how far we drive to work, how far our food has to travel to get to us,” says Michel Gelobter, executive director of Redefining Progress. Governments choose whether to fund transportation or more roads, whether to revitalize their downtowns or sprawl into the countryside. Car manufacturers decide which models to put on the market. Demanding laws and technological advances can be as important as weatherizing the house. “We want people to take action both at the individual level and collectively,” he adds.
In this light, I add up my job as an environmental writer, include weekends spent as a volunteer harbor-seal monitor, and throw in the letter I wrote to my senator last week. I feel a little better.
Still, my individual footprint needs reducing. I pull on my sneakers. On Market Street with its smells of sweet-and-sour pork and exhaust, a man with his belongings in a shopping cart feeds half a slice of bread to the pigeons. Traffic thickens, and buses groan to life. As I near downtown, the clouds pull apart, letting the sun shine on tourists, shopping teenagers, men and women in suits bound for the financial district. Gossip and business deals in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi drift down every block.
Footsore but exhilarated, I enter the office building, reach my desk, and throw down my backpack.
I don’t feel virtuous, but I feel good.
Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2003 issue of Sierra magazine.