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At 10 years old, everyone predicted I was going to be the height of a basketball player — because in elementary school, I was always one of the tallest in the class. But more than height, the tell-tale sign was my feet: size 7 in fifth grade. All I had to do was wait for the day I’d shoot up like a geyser.
I waited. And 12 years later, at 5 feet 4 inches and size 9 feet (on a good day), I’m still waiting. It turns out, though, I did end up growing big feet in another way. In fact, most of the people I grew up with did. Not with physical foot growth, but an ecological one. That, I learned, is where basketball player proportions is a lot more detrimental than we think.
This discovery about ecological footprints, for me, happened in my senior year of college when I enrolled in an introductory environmental science class. I loved it because most of our labs consisted of us taking field trips to different off-site places: walking through an old-growth forest, wading in a cold mountain stream, hiking up an abandoned mine, driving through a landfill. Those trips alone opened my eyes to the state of the local environment — what was thriving, what wasn’t — but what really stuck in my head was a test we all had to take during one of our first in-class labs.
Our professor introduced it as the Global Footprint Network’s ecological footprint calculator. We had to answer a series of questions online that measured how you lived: what you ate, how much garbage you estimated to throw out, where you lived, who you lived with, how far you drove, the list went on. At the end, our results revealed our ecological footprint: how much of the earth’s resources we consumed, and hence how big of a consumer “footprint” we left. Those results were measured in planets: the number of planets you had revealed how many Earths it would take to sustain your type of living if everyone else in the world lived the same way.
Being a college student, there were some questions I was proud to answer. I didn’t really drive much, since I lived on campus, and compared to what I saw other students toss in the dumpster on a weekly basis, I didn’t produce nearly as much waste. Pleasingly, I clicked away at the questions, anticipating that my score wouldn’t be so terrible. After all, I was a fairly self-aware person.
And in some ways I was right. I got three and a half planets. Compared to many other students in the class who got five or six, my score was glowing. But still. Three and a half planets. I knew it was better than some, but that was relative. It was still cause for worry.
To make matters even more stinging, our professor took this score one step further. A soft-spoken yet passionate man, he came to every class with a mug full of hot coffee or tea. He’d spend morning lectures roaming back and forth across the room, trying to engage sleepy students and ask them tough questions about the state of our world, most of whom didn’t respond too readily. When he got excited about a topic — which was quite often — he tended to jump octaves and swing his arms, always in a good-natured way. But maybe it was this earnestness that really drove the point home for me. Especially as I stared at my little collection of planets gleaming on my computer screen.
“Think of this a different way,” he said. “If you have, say, four planets, that means three people’s share of the planet is being taken away from them.”
I knew that the calculator’s result was just that: a theoretical calculation. I knew that what my professor said might not exactly play out that way in the real world with all its complications. But it was more true than false in my mind. So that meant I was depriving two and a half people of the resources that they were entitled to as an inhabitant on this planet. How did their lives look without those resources?
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), that class changed the way I looked at how I lived. And from then on, I knew that even if I physically never met my fifth grade height expectations, I made up for it with my large ecological footprint.
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Several months later after graduating college, I found myself working as an editor for Mother Earth Living, and the more I did research and writings and edits on environmental subjects, the more my old science professor’s lectures came flooding back to me … and the more I wanted to do something about it.
I had moved out to Kansas for this job from Pennsylvania, my life-long home up to this point, trading the mountains and big cities for flatlands and the open sky. In some ways, I feel more connected to nature out here than I did before. It still can’t make up for the ancient rolling mountains I’ve come to see as part of my home, but the contagious Kansas air and the long, stretching farmlands and prairie grasses spark that feeling of re-connection with the earth. And this time around, I’m not a student. I’m in the working world, a little more able to make changes.
The first thing to do is to tackle this multiple planets problem — essentially, to shrink my ecological footprint. That’s one area in which I don’t want big feet.
I want this to be a journey I share with you: my goals, what works, what doesn’t work. For several more blog posts, I will be recording my journey toward a more waste-free and sustainable lifestyle, using trusted and tried resources and my own experimentations.
You’re invited to join this journey with me! Whether it’s just to read or to try yourself, keep up with my blog posts to stay updated on my process, and hopefully it’ll inspire you as well.
To start, visit the Global Footprint Network to learn more about this organization, what they do, and of course take the ecological footprint test. I found that out of the several that I’ve looked into, this one is the most well-covered in its queries and calculations and has an equal balance of “reality-check,” urgency, and a hopeful optimism for the future. How many planets do you use?
For my next blog post, I will be looking more into this ecological footprint number (what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and several questions I had along the way) and start lining up some resources to get started on the road to a more waste-free and sustainable life! I hope you join this journey with me, and together we’ll shrink our feet for a better planet.