Looking Past the Footprint

By Adam Brock

What happens when you’re done with shrinking your footprint?

I ran out of honey yesterday and swung by the natural foods store to pick up some more. There were a dozen or so types to choose from, and, one by one, I examined the labels for maximum greenitude. One looked like it was made upstate – but it was in a non-recyclable plastic container. Another one was certified organic – but it was imported from Italy. A third was organic, domestically produced, and in a glass jar – but when I looked at the price tag, I scoffed.

Suddenly I realized I’d been comparing jars of honey for five minutes. This was absurd. What difference, really, was all my deliberation going to make? A pound of carbon? An ounce of pesticides? Or perhaps no difference at all: the honey was already on the shelf. Somebody, inevitably, would purchase the other jars, and my little message to The Market would be canceled out.

As I continue to learn more about my ecological impact, episodes like the one in the grocery store are becoming the rule rather than the exception. Every choice I make – what I buy, how I go about my daily routine, even the way I talk – is now laced with an awareness of its diffuse effects on the biosphere. In many ways, it’s been a rewarding shift, bringing me closer to natural cycles and sustaining my mental well-being. But sometimes this newfound awareness feels like it’s bordering on an unhealthy obsession. How productive is it, really, to fret over a jar of honey when the global climate is spiraling out of control? Have I lost the forest for the trees?

Perhaps. Like so many other verdy souls these days, I seem to have gotten caught up in footprint mania. From Colin Beavan’s recently-concluded No Impact experiment to the cheery exhortations of last summer’s Live Earth concerts, reducing our personal impact has come to dominate the sustainability discourse over the last year. Inundated with statistics about food miles and embodied energy, we’ve found ourselves wandering the endless labyrinth of product backstories, discovering just how far-reaching the consequences of our everyday actions have become.

To be sure, footprint shrinking makes a great pastime. Like going on a diet or saving up for a vacation, it’s a goal-oriented challenge, with progressive steps that we can measure (or at least approximate). There’s also a certain therapeutic element to it: as several bloggers have pointed out, minding our own impact makes us feel a little less helpless in the face of the massive problems confronting us. The biosphere might be headed towards the brink of disaster, we say to ourselves, but at least I’m doing my part by buying local apples and turning off the tap.

I think we can do better. Personal actions might ease our conscience and make us healthier, but they can only go so far towards improving our collective impact. Even if the entire country made an effort to reduce their footprint – something that seems exceedingly unlikely – we’d still be stuck relying on unsustainable systems that are beyond the scope of any single person. Most suburbanites simply can’t get by without a car, while residents of our country’s poorest neighborhoods don’t have access to sustainable food. And nearly all of us are forced to participate in systems that compromise the planet’s health simply to earn a living.

It’s these large-scale systems, the ones that are transcend individual choices, that are responsible for the vast majority of green sins – and it’s these systems that we should be focusing our energy towards reforming. Shrinking our collective footprint means chipping away at the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, that inhibits the sprouting of a sustainable society. It means taking political action, especially on the local level. It means rebuilding face-to-face community by connecting with our neighbors. It means reevaluating our professional roles, and engaging our friends, family and colleagues in thinking about the future of our culture.

None of this will be easy. Whereas greening our personal lives takes knowledge and willpower, taking it to the next level requires courage, political savvy, critical thinking, and a great deal of patience. But it’s doable – and it’s got to be done. We’ll be confronting some tough realities in the years ahead, and a lot of things we take for granted will be called into question. But as the old, wasteful way of doing things starts to slowly unravel, we’ll be sustained by the power of what we are creating: something that brings people back together, that gives our lives a sense of purpose, that treats the natural world as an equal partner… the regeneration.

What happens when you’re done with shrinking your footprint? You start walking.

Photo credit: flickr/ricketts_fish

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10 thoughts on “Looking Past the Footprint

  1. nelophone says:

    Adam, welcome back. But seriously, you’re onto something I’ve felt for a long time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s something about fanaticism of a certain stripe that is simply unhealthy. Its an almost Golem-esque obsession, and it literally starts to take over peoples lives, which is fairly counterproductive considering that the point of this movement is to improve and sustain life on earth.

    Not that footprint examination isn’t great stuff. My own forways into it have taught me a great deal, including some habits worth keeping. Mostly, though, they’ve taught me that personally, I lack the self discipline required to significantly restrict myself in a culture as varied and abundant as ours. In other words, I think I will eat avocados until they hit $4 apiece for their carbon content. And that’s what makes me human.

    So here’s to contradictions, and to thinking-and acting-big.

  2. Rosa says:

    Thank you for this post, it’s great!

    Just because we all start with small steps doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be moving on to larger ones.

  3. slightlytilted says:

    I agree as well, however not everyone has the courage to voice their beliefs. We have to band together as a community before we can try to change the way we live together. Personally out of all my friends and relatives, my fiance and I are the only ones we know who are making a conscious effort to green our everyday lives and be less wastefull, which is even difficult for us. The fist step is awareness, and once the word starts to spread wide and far, then we can organize.
    One man can make a difference, but the impact of 10 men with the same voice is a lot harder to ignore.
    Live well, stay green~

  4. Despairing says:

    Great comment piece Adam. Everyone talks about the small, first steps, but no one really talks about the next strides.

    As for the honey – I would have chosen the expensive one thinking that it would tell the manufacturer there was a market, they would mass-produce and drop the price, and the others would get the message that their product isn’t up to scratch. And then hope everyone else had the same outlook on it!

  5. Brave New Leaf says:

    I agree with this post 150%. As a previous green skeptic, I know that it was the little things about greenies that amounted to zealotry in my eyes, and I just couldn’t imagine that

    As a newly annointed green convert, I am trying to take the most pragmatic approach to greening my life as possible. Reach for the low fruit and make the changes that will really make a difference.

    And then rather than scrutinize my behavior at the next lowest level (like buying the greenest honey, or greening my sex life), I want to go up and out. To help my aging parents green their homes. To help my condominium complex embrace green practices. To encourage my community do so.

    This is where our energy and focus needs to go.

  6. craig1colo says:

    Very nice post Adam. There are three items I would like to put forward. First, the fact that anyone considers their footprint when making a purchasing decision is nearly always a good thing. When we make the choice to purchase a product we are assuming its footprint as part of our own. That is just good information to have.
    Second, when we consider product footprint, it moves us toward pressuring the producer for transparency that allows us to judge the product in a fair manner.
    Third, once we pressure for that transparency, we will start to expose the real barriers to reducing footprint in the large and actions/systems required to move us in that direction.
    Let’s all vow to keep pressuring for the information and transparency required for informed decisions.

  7. Mihail says:

    Adam, just dropping in to say I really enjoyed this post. You have a talent for clearly and artfully articulating what many of us think and feel on a daily basis. Thank you. 🙂

  8. Shane Crary-Ross says:

    It’s a really good point; like everyone else, I agree completely. Thomas Friedman wrote an article along similar lines a little while ago — “So if you want to be a green college kid or a green adult, don’t fool yourself: You can change lights. You can change cars. But if you don’t change leaders, your actions are nothing more than an expression of, as Dick Cheney would say, ‘personal virtue.'”

    I’m virtuous, usually.

  9. Noami says:

    Adam-
    I read this post a while back, but was too caught up in school to respond. However, now I can recall that the day I read it you provided me a fresh breath. You write about something I know oh so well… and now as I wrap up school, it seems it is more about taking the time and thought to find a healthy lifestyle to soak into than getting upset about driving some miles to see my sister….
    I am wondering about greening ones sex life someone refered to…. I not sure I get where that is going…
    Later!

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