Meet the Numbers

CO2 GDP Clip

Fact: The cumulative biomass of the 6.5 billion humans currently alive is smaller than that of ants – yet we use 40% of the Earth’s land surface for our own activities.

One of the largest hurdles in mainstreaming the ecological crisis is making the facts visible. How much electricity, exactly, is a kilowatt? And what’s a kilowatt-hour? How can a couple hundred parts per million of CO2 really make such a huge difference? What does a shantytown of two million people look like?

Climate change, overpopulation, and resource depletion are enormously subtle and complex issues, and it’s often difficult to understand them without a good deal of preparation. Fortunately, there’s been a storm of activity aimed at making these topics understandable at a glance. The most visible example is the Oscar-winning An Inconvienent Truth, but there are plenty more eye-opening projects out there. Swedish professor Hans Rosling and his incredible Gapminder foundation have made an art of graphically displaying trends in human development, while the Global Rich List is a stylin’ British site that shows the visitor where he or she ranks in the worldwide distribution of wealth. “Of All the People In All the World“, a performance piece currently at MassMOCA in Boston North Adams, uses grains of rice to symbolize categories of human populations to stunning effect.

Fact: the amount of water used to irrigate the world’s golf courses is enough to provide for the drinking water and hygeine needs of 120 million people, or almost the entire population of Nigeria.

Perhaps the most popular and helpful tool for understanding humans’ impact is the ecological footprint – a measure of the amount of land area needed to support a given activity. Worldwide, there are about 4.5 biologically productive acres of land per person, while the average American has an ecological footprint of 24 acres. Now that climate change has hit the mainstream, the same concept is being applied to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of carbon footprints.

Fact: The production and transportation of a cheeseburger releases 6.5 pounds of CO2 on its way to your plate. A computer is responsible for 250 pounds per year. A family car driven 12,000 miles: 5 tons. A round-trip flight from New York to LA: one ton per person.

How can we begin to reduce our ecological footprints to something slightly more fair – and our carbon footprints to zero? First, it’s essential to understand how the choices we make on a day to day basis are affecting the global ecosystem. A number of physical and virtual tools are allowing us to do just that, harnessing information technology to tell us more about the impact of our lifestyle. As I’ve mentioned, calculators for Ecological and Carbon footprints are a great way to get a ballpark estimate of our own environmental impact. But these are reactive tools: they assess after the fact. What we need now are proactive tools, ones that allow us to understand the impacts of our decisions as we’re in the process of making them.

Implementing this sort of instant feedback isn’t as impossible as it might sound. Just look at what’s happening overseas: much has been made of Japan’s move to begin tracking food with cell-phone scanners, as well as UK supermarket chain Tesco’s plans to tag each of their products with a carbon footprint label. Stateside, we’re somewhat behind, although sites like Responsible Shopper and Center for a New American Dream are great places to start researching the “sustainability points” of your favorite brand.

Fact: the choices we make concerning what we purchase, how we eat, and how we get around have a tremendous impact on the planet’s health. It’s within our power to live a happy, healthy and sustainable lifestyle, and educating ourselves on these impacts is the first step to getting there.

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