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


CO2 Stats = A Carbon Neutral Internet?

By Adam Brock

Hot on the heels of Real Costs comes CO2 Stats, a blog widget that calculates emissions from the time you spend online and offsets them through Sustainable Travel International. Developed by Tim Sullivan and Alex Wissner-Gross, two PhD students at Harvard and Yale, CO2 Stats has the ambitious goal of “making the entire internet carbon neutral”.

I’m a little skeptical that that’ll happen anytime soon (especially given the questionable effectiveness of carbon offsets), but Sullivan and Gross’ early success is impressive: a week after its official launch, CO2 stats reaches 170,000 users per month. Now if I could just figure out a way to install the plugins on WGY, I just might become a proud CO2 Statistician.

Footprint Forward: Carry That Waste (Again)

By Adam Brock

Footprint Forward Week, NYU’s low-impact living challenge, kicked off today with a provocative and informative workshop with No Impact Man. For most of the past month, I’ve been caught up with planning and promoting the week, but now it’s time to actually take the challenge and put my footprint shrinking ideas to work. Having spent the past six months actively working to reduce my impact, I’ve got most of the easy stuff covered: my roommates and I are satisfied customers of the Williamsburg CSA, there’s a couple clothes lines in my backyard, and I’ve gotten into the habit of taking a glass bottle and a tupperware container pretty much everywhere I go.

But there’s always more impact to reduce, and Footprint Forward gives me an opportunity to experiment with some more extreme ideas that I haven’t incorporated into my daily life. I’ve started showering by candlelight – it makes my morning routine that much more enjoyable – and I’ll be trying even harder than usual to unplug, cutting down on the amount of time I spend on the computer and listening to music.

The biggest change for the week will be reviving an experiment that I tried earlier this year: carrying around all the trash I create. By making myself personally responsible for my waste, I’ll hopefully have an incentive to create less of it. I’ve improved upon my receptacle from last time, trading the big plastic bag in for an old shoulder bag I found in my closet. Plastic and other landfill goes in the main compartment, while food scraps are going into a ziploc bag and, at the end of every day, my worm bin.

If all goes according to plan, the bag will be more statement than burden: I’ve spelled out the word “TRASH” in electrical tape on the front, and fully intend to keep it manageably light throughout the week. Will it work? Check back in the coming days for an update.

Footprint Forward Week

By Adam Brock

NYU is huge – like, small city huge. Making progress towards sustainability in an institution of 70,000 people can be a slow and often painstaking process. But every so often, I get the chance to work on something really incredible that makes it all worth it.


My favorite campus greening project so far this semester is Footprint Forward, a university-wide challenge to live with as miniscule an impact as possible for a week. Participants will have the opportunity to calculate their footprints before and after the challenge, but Footprint Forward isn’t intended to be a competition. Rather, it’s an opportunity to build community and discover how low-impact living can enrich their own health as well as that of the planet.

The week will kick off with a lecture by our neighborhood low impact expert, No Impact Man, to be followed by an introduction to ecofootprinting led by yours truly. A group called the Gallatin Consciousness will be using the week to start a campaign to ban bottled water on campus, and we’ll be cosponsoring a talk by “Post-Carbon Cities” author Daniel Lerch. With a participant handbook, a plethora of volunteer opportunities and workshops, and even a Footprint Forward blog, there should be no shortage of chances for participants to connect and share tips.

As part of the community-building spirit of the program, we’re extending an open invitation to the New York community at large – so if you live in the area and are interested in participating, you can sign up here.

Tracing it Back, and Farther Back Still

By Adam Brock

Reading Joel Makower’s most recent article on Cooler, a carbon-neutral online retail portal, I came across UC Berkeley’s Lifecycle Climate Footprint Calculator – one of the best tools I’ve seen yet for quantifying environmental impact. What sets the Berkeley tool apart is that it attempts to put a number on the emissions that are more than one step removed from our consumer choices. From the methodology report (PDF):

The model assumes that consumers are ultimately responsible for not only end‐use impacts, such as air emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in automobiles, but also the indirect environmental impacts resulting from the production of goods and services throughout the commodity and service chains.

The Berkeley researchers are tackling head-on the question at the heart of any environmental impact assessment: how far back do you go? If you’re footprinting, say, a banana, do you include the emissions from producing the fertilizer used to grow it? What about the emissions from the mining operations used to extract the phosphorous for the fertilizer? Ideally, it should all be factored in – but practically, it’s another story. Trying to collect and crunch all that data is a pretty insurmountable process.

So how did Berkeley do it? By piggybacking on another clever tool, Carnegie Mellon’s Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA). Rather than trace back the impact from every individual product and process, EIO-LCA assumes that emissions between sectors of the economy match up with economic activity between those sectors, data that’s readily available. Drawing from a matrix provided by the Department of Commerce, the model will show, for instance, that a million dollars of economic activity in aluminum production also generates $258,000 in alumina refining and $168,000 in power generation and supply – numbers that can then be used to estimate emissions from those secondary activities.

Neither Berkeley’s tool nor the Carnegie Mellon database it draws from can be considered entirely accurate; it’s an admittedly shaky assumption, for one, that carbon emissions are directly tied to dollars. Still, these tools at least try to capture what nothing else, at this point, can: the ways in which our consumer choices reverberate back through the economy. It’s an important consideration – and one that the fledgling science of ecofootprinting has yet to account for.