Our ecological footprint, ourselves

Jess Vogt

No, this is not my age, or my IQ, or my credit score. It’s my ecological footprint – or the number of acres of land and resources I will use in my lifetime if I continue living the lifestyle I do now. And it’s probably about average for a college student living in a dorm or apartment, eating largely processed cafeteria food every day, and traveling everywhere on foot or bicycle. Of course, your number will be lower if you’re vegan or vegetarian (I am not) or higher if you drive a car (I do not).
So what? Why should we care about our ecological footprint? Or is this just another number, like the so many others we love to attach to ourselves as human beings?
Well, for starters consider that the average American’s ecological footprint is 24 acres per person. So comparatively, we’re doing pretty well as college students. Unfortunately, few people live in residences as small as dorms or apartments and travel everywhere on foot for much of their lives, so as we get older and leave the Lawrence bubble, our ecological footprint is likely to increase.
However, we also have the option to abandon processed cafeteria food as much as possible and buy local or organic foods as we start cooking for ourselves. Local or organic and unprocessed foods contribute less to our ecological footprint and more to a sustainable planet.
And, as we enter into the real world, we can make choices to live in a “green” building and use renewable sources of energy, or less energy. And we can buy fuel-efficient cars or use public transportation instead of owning a car.
What’s more, the U.S. average eco footprint is five times the global average – nine times that of a person living in Africa or the Pacific, four times that of a person in Latin America or the Middle East, and a little more than twice that of Europeans. Americans use much more than our share of the resources available on this planet, a pattern of consumption that is not only inequitable but also completely unsustainable.
Global Footprint Network states, “Humanity’s Ecological Footprint is over 23 percent larger than what the planet can regenerate. In other words, it now takes more than one year and two months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in a single year.”
There are six ways humans make use of the earth’s land and water, all of which contribute to an individual or nation’s ecological footprint. As outlined by Redefining Progress (www.rprogress.org), an organization dedicated to “shifting the economy and public policy towards sustainability,” humans use the environment for growing crops, grazing animals, harvesting timber, catching fish, housing infrastructure and absorbing CO2 emissions.
The earth’s resources are inherently limited and the current way the human population as a whole uses our resources is unsustainable. Unless we limit consumption or change our use patterns, the scarcity of these resources will become drastically apparent and human lifestyles will change dramatically.
The analogy of an ecological footprint is becoming a more useful measure of human effect on the environment as accounting methods improve with greater knowledge of the earth’s processes and limits on resources. It is an increasingly popular method of quantifying ecological sustainability and is even beginning to be used in political rhetoric on the environment.
Redefining Progress is working with the ecological footprint idea and other sustainability indicators to give policy makers new tools with which to make and implement environmental legislation. As interest peaks on issues pertaining to the environment and sustainability, the concept of an ecological footprint will become a key point in arguments on the sustainability of human society.How can you decrease your ecological footprint?
Eating less meat and driving a car less are two of the more obvious ways you can personally live a more sustainable lifestyle. Other ways include actively abstaining from junk mail, installing compact fluorescent light bulbs in place of regular incandescents (CFLs are available at residence hall front desks), and taking shorter, colder showers. For more ideas, go to www.newdream.org or www.footprintnetwork.org.

To calculate your individual ecological footprint and learn more, go to www.myfootprint.com.