Living Lightly on the Planet? My Carbon Footprint

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Today is Earth Overshoot Day. This is the day when humanity will begin placing more demands on the planet's resources -- from filtering CO2 to producing food, fiber and timber -- than the planet can provide in this year. From this day forward until the end of the year, people will meet our demand for ecological services by depleting resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The global economic crash has one positive thing to recommend it: according to the Global Footprint Network, our use of world resources has dramatically slowed this year. In the past, Earth Overshoot Day steadily moved four to six days closer to January 1 each year. In contrast, the 2009 Earth Overshoot Day comes only one day later than last year. Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier each year, partly because Earth's population continues to grow, and also because the standards of the developed world are spreading around the globe.

To learn more about how my lifestyle drains resources and affects the animals, plants and other people on the planet that we all share, I calculated my personal footprint. Quite honestly, I am extremely disappointed in myself and in the size of my footprint (3.9 planet Earths). If I am going to consume that many resources, the least I could do is live a happy life that is filled with friends, possessions, experiences and well, really cool stuff, but this isn't true. However, that said, I think this test is somewhat inaccurate because;

  1. It assumes I purchase some sort of clothing every month, when in fact, I do not.
  2. It assumes that I purchase new furnishings every year when in fact, the only piece of furniture that I own is a 15-year-old hand-made futon, and I have not purchased any furnishings since then, nor do I plan to.
  3. It assumes I purchase either major or minor appliances every year, when in fact, my last appliance purchase -- of any sort -- was a microwave that I purchased 7 years ago.
  4. It assumes that I spend money on gas or oil every year when in fact, I do not use any gas (unfortunately, my oil use is out of my control; the landlord provides that as required by NYC law).

I also find myself increasingly frustrated by;

  1. Being forced to purchase new containers filled with a variety of products, ranging from shampoo and cleaning supplies to laundry detergents, when I really want to refill those (plastic!!) containers that I already have.
  2. NYC does not provide an acceptable recycle program -- or better yet, adopting a recycle program that is comparable to that in Seattle -- while the city loudly touts to the world that it recycles. Puhleeze!
  3. Being forced to heat my apartment (oil) in the winter, when in fact, I would not do so, if given the choice. (Yes, I do have plenty of sweaters, and there's a reason for that!)

Anyway, that said, as you can see, I consume 3.9 planets in exchange for my lifestyle. This is incredibly discouraging and disgusting, especially when I go back to the test and cut my air travel down to what it was two years ago (0-4 hours per year; after relocating to Germany, I expect that my air travel will become greatly reduced) .. and I see that my lifestyle still requires 3.7 earths! When I think of a consumptive lifestyle, I think of people who abuse the earth's resources through over-consumption, extreme pollution and blatant waste, however, I indulge in none of these behaviors. My lifestyle -- particularly in view of the last five years of struggle and misery that I've endured -- is not worth destroying 3.9 Earths every year.

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I consume 2.7 lifestyles (or would if I was in Switzerland). I think the Germans are pretty good about recycling, so that'll be a plus.

hm. i took the quiz again, using switzerland as my home and attempting to replicate my answers as closely as possible, and ended up consuming 2.1 earths .. it's just so frustrating to realize that living in the USA appears to automatically add 1.8 planets of consumption .. do homeless people in, say, NYC, also consume 1.8 planets just to live in a dumpster? i guess we'll never know since that quiz does not allow people to be homeless.

I did worse than either Grrl or Bob O'H, with a footprint score of 4.7. I could get that down to 4.0 if I reduced consumption of animal products further, and bought more local foods and minimally packaged products. Still pretty bad, but I'm stuck in suburbia, close to my job, and with only one ridiculously inconvenient option for public transport. If I had a deathwish, I'd cycle into work. At least we have a good curbside recycling program through the city, and I can grow vegetables in my backyard.

i took the quiz again, pretending that i live in victoria, australia -- where i'd be surrounded by parrots, which would make me incredibly happy -- and replicating my answers as closely as possible and ended up consuming 1.8 earths .. i guess this means i really need to leave this country, huh?

(the canada quiz gave me a peculiar answer; basically, i'd consume as much as the average canadian)

I think that site is pretty useless. I filled it out reasonably accurately for my family, and scored 3.4 earths. Then I filled it out as if I were a saint -- zero miles travel, no electricity, etc -- and still scored 2.7. In fact, after playing with it, there seems to be no way to go below 2.7, and a lot of the options have little to no effect on that score. Other options have an enormous effect -- an extra earth for riding a motorcycle 70 miles a week.


I answered the questions honestly and it told me I was consuming 4.3 planet earths! I agree ... this quiz is not that accurate and makes too many assumptions. By their standards I'd have to live in a tent, bike everywhere and grow all my own food. Not enough sun where I live to have solar panels. Retrofitting my hone to be green is way too expensive. So I do what I can.

I take public transportation to work but still need a car to navigate the suburbs. I rarely buy more "stuff" but I do replace what breaks. I recycle everything, compost all organics and mulch yard waste for my garden where I grow my own veggies. I have about 1/3 bag of trash each week yet I am forced to pay for full service trash collection by the city I live in. Suburbia doesn't make it easy to be green.

"Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier each year, partly because Earth's population continues to grow, and also because the standards of the developed world are spreading around the globe."

Do the math. The problem is more one of needing to limit the number of feet than the size of the footprints.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

I have to agree with some of the other comments here; this tool is probably a little south of worthless. The fact that nothing you can do results in a sustainable level of consumption could lead a lot of people to write off any sort of action completely. I have to say it had that effect on me, and I actually give a damn. What effect is it going to have on somebody who's coming to it already skeptical that they can or should do anything about their level of consumption? I'm not necessarily saying the tool is inaccurate - it very well may be, but if it is, then I have to agree with Bob @7: the message should probably be targeted at shocking people into population control, rather than ascetic self-deprivation.

By Eric Johnson (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

the message should probably be targeted at shocking people into population control, rather than ascetic self-deprivation

I agree that the increasing human population is the primary problem here, but a message aimed at trying to convince people not to reproduce, or to limit offspring to one or two children, is not going to succeed. It's much more likely to offend and alienate people who otherwise try to limit environmental impact and carbon footprints. I haven't reproduced, and have no intention of doing so, but I can't imagine imposing my own decisions on friends and family who have chosen differently. In general, I don't even discuss this decision. Of course I do think that birth control resources and education should be readily available (unfortunately, I live in an "abstinence only education" state), but that involves considerations beyond environmental impact.

In general, I don't even discuss this decision.

i also don't have kids and don't want to contribute to the population explosion (and why should i when so many other people are doing just fine without my help?). however, this conversation is very common in my life, and i am left defending my decision to people whom i don't know well .. WTF?

this reminds me of the "religion debates" where i don't initiate conversations with others about my lack of religion, but other people feel perfectly free to proselytize to me (and then when i tell them why i lack religion, they then feel free to condemn me to hellfire or criminalize me).

Huh. Victoria (Australia) would have very high CO2 production with its industries, almost absolute reliance on coal fired power plants, poorly insulated houses and cold (or hot) weather. You get all sorts of parrots all along Australia's east coast; I'm sure you'd love being around as various species pass through and there must be a few large bird cages where you can see some types of parrots all year around.

I don't really worry about the population problem; I'll be long gone before things collapse. Humans may simply lack the sense to ensure the continuation of modern civilization into the future. It would be rather ironic that the people who are poo-pooed for being "primitive" will be the survivors.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 27 Sep 2009 #permalink

Oh, I see why Victoria rulez and the USA sucks:

"... the calculator received generous support from EPA Victoria ..."

Don't bite the hand that bribes/feeds/pays you.

What annoys me about such pretentious websites is that people are prone to buy into the bunk and believe that there's something out there that works and requires little to no effort and doesn't have demonized technology in it like nuclear power generation. For whatever reason, people fail to see that a "green solution" is a myth; one of the largest problems is overpopulation and the concomitant demand for resources and no amount of chanting "kumbaya" is going to do any good. People in the oil and gas industries do see an end to those resources in a matter of decades; coal people say they have a few hundred years' stock (but when oil and gas go, coal consumption will really take off). To maintain modern cities, the only sensible things to do include:

1. reduce population
2. move away from fossil fuel consumption

Neither are trivial, and governments don't seem to care about either. If anything governments encourage population growth and resource extraction because you get attractive numbers on bits of paper - it must be a number fetish.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 27 Sep 2009 #permalink

however, this conversation is very common in my life, and i am left defending my decision to people whom i don't know well .. WTF?

Oh yes, I've experienced that situation, Grrl, and totally agree on the "WTF?". Often it's the very people who would howl with righteous outrage at the slightest suggestion of an overpopulation contribution to environmental problems, who have no qualms about discussing and judging the reproductive choices of their friends and colleagues. Gotta love the implicit justification that educated/wealthy/clever/non-religious/white etc. people should reproduce, to balance out the undesirables (i.e. those different from the person who's "explaining" this elitist rationalization to you). Not. Yet it's amazing how often you'll hear such arguments (disingenuously couched in more politically correct language) from supposedly progressive individuals. I'd prefer to avoid the whole discussion, honestly, but people can be very persistent, when they're rationalizing their choices and smacking you with smug elitism and superiority at the same time.