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