Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Growing up as a big sister, I relished the perks of having a younger sibling to take under my wing — or in the crook of my arm in a wrestling match. My sister and I grew up inseparable for the most part, but sometimes I liked to push her buttons. One of the best ways to do that was to try to force her to do something she didn’t want to, like eating a new food. Usually I would say something like this:
“Maddie, I think you’d really like this watermelon. You like water, right? And you like melon. So you’d love watermelon!”
After my impressive display of mental tenacity, I would dangle the food in Maddie’s face, at which point she’d turn a threatening red in her cheeks, and a fight wasn’t far behind. Nowadays, my sister is my best friend; we can laugh at those moments — and yes, we both like watermelon. But that conclusion wasn’t reached by me shoving fruit in my sister’s face. It came about after we both had the chance to try it on our own and make our own decisions.
The same, I personally found, goes for something like an ecological footprint. It wasn’t until I made it a personal experience that I could really understand it and make plans to create change — and I encourage you to do the same!
If you’re just tuning in to this blog series, you can find the first part at “Tracking Our Ecological Footprint.”
Screenshot from Global Footprint Network
Taking the Footprint Calculator test, to me, is a great way to make the topic of sustainable living a personal one instead of just cold numbers floating up there on the internet or in a science textbook. Because the number you see on the screen isn’t the world’s number — it’s your number. It shows what you personally contribute and take away from the planet. And with something personal like that, it has the potential to create a spark in our minds to make changes.
I hadn’t taken the calculator test since college, so I recently went back into Global Footprint Network (GFN) and answered those questions again. Presently, I have about 2.8 planets — better than my college days, but the number can improve. What I was curious about was how to raise and lower that number. What would it take to get to two planets, one planet, less than one? And what was in my ability to change? Those two questions, I found, can unfortunately have two different answers.
Thus began some trials into what it takes to shrink my footprint. The first thing I tried was to see how I could lower my number in ways that was feasible for me right now. I went back in and increased how much I recycled, lowered how much meat I ate, increased how many times I carpooled, scaled back my monthly and annual purchasing estimates …. And even then, I only got down to about 2.5 planets. That was frustrating. I tried a few more trials on the calculator, and I still couldn’t reduce the number to below two.
So I went another route. How could I just get down to one planet, in hypothetical terms? So I re-calculated: This time around, I didn’t eat any meat, didn’t drive a car, only bought local and fresh foods, lived in a free-standing house without electricity or running water, and so on. That time, the number plummeted to 0.3 planets. That was exciting to see, but more so frustrating, because that was describing a living scenario I couldn’t access.
For those of you who have taken the test, you might have noticed that your number of Earths is also accompanied by an “Earth Overshoot Day,” which is an estimated date as to when you would use up a year’s worth of the planet’s resources if everyone lived like you (see image above). Beyond that time, you would be dipping into stocks and creating emissions Earth couldn’t replenish or reduce within that year, hence overshooting and creating an overflow into the next year. That type of living isn’t sustainable.
This brings me to a point that worried me and I’m sure many others: how can we try to live waste-free lives, not overshooting on our resources, when the infrastructure of our society almost seems to be working directly against it? How we commute, how houses are built, where food comes from, what we eat, it’s all built into how we live. It’s hard, albeit at times seemingly impossible, to live any other way. And it makes it even harder to change when our schedules, financial situations, or other societal struggles keep us from living sustainably. And even if we were to reduce our planets to one or below, for some that raises the questions of health and safety. So, now what?
Photo by Karsten Wurth on Unsplash
Increasingly, people have been asking those same questions and seeking ways to live sustainably — live, not just survive. As the GFN also makes clear, steps need to be made so that people are not damaging the planet but also not damaging themselves. Countries should help those in need and provide sustainable and healthful means to live, while still honoring different cultures’ ways of life.
So yes, some of the obstacles we may encounter in this challenge may be hard to figure out, but the one thought that stood above the rest when I researched and brainstormed ways to live sustainably … is that it takes time. When shrinking our ecological footprint, sometimes it goes against the grain of what’s quickest or easiest. For example, throwing my banana peel in the trash at work might be the easiest route, but making the walk outside to put it in the compost bin is the greener option. For other things, we may know the more sustainable option but can’t make the change right now. I know an electric or hybrid car is more environmentally friendly than my gas-powered car, but I don’t have the money to make that investment. Perhaps there’s something we can’t do right this very instant, but we can plan for the future. What we drive, where we live, how far we travel…. Those are big questions and big changes, and if that’s a change that happens over time, we need to be patient, keep learning, and keep planning. And I believe that over time we can see those footprints shrink if we plan to make those investments for the future.
But some things we can change right now, so why not do it?
For now, start thinking and getting pumped to embrace a new way of living — one that is more waste-free and fulfilling. Make this a personal experience by taking the calculator test. Note where you can start changing how you live. Set aside longer-term points to keep thinking about. This will take some time, but don’t forget to value the journey — and have some fun along the way! We don’t want this to feel forced, like someone trying to make you do something you don’t want to. We want this to be enjoyable, personal, satisfying, and beneficial.
In my next blog post, we will be discussing how we can record our present living habits and then break down some of the main categories in which we can start shrinking our ecological footprint. I’ll also be sharing my personal experiments — some successful … others not so much. In the meantime, send me your questions and comments about living sustainably at firstname.lastname@example.org. My plan is to cover some of the big topics that come with shrinking our ecological footprint, but I’m learning about this right beside you; questions and comments are welcomed, and it’s always encouraging to see other ways people are living sustainably, too!
I want to jump into different sustainable living tips and experiments, but it’s still very important to stay educated and aware of the facts and changes regarding our ecological footprints and everything connected to it. Be sure to check out the Global Footprint Network, the Environmental Protection Agency, and trustworthy articles like this one from the New York Times to get you started as you prepare to make some changes to help the planet.
Jess currently works as an editor for Mother Earth Living after she packed her bags and moved from her Pennsylvania home to Kansas. When she’s not writing and editing, she loves to snuggle up with a book and a pot of tea, embark on long hikes outdoors, read and study plays, eat too many chocolate-covered banana chips, and binge-watch animated shows and movies. And she still occasionally teases her sister. You can follow Jess on Instagram @jess_mitchell95.
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