What’s up with footprints anyway?

And why the hell do they matter?  Everyone’s heard that they have a carbon footprint, and that it should be as small as possible because carbon causes global warming.  But that’s pretty oversimplified.  What honestly does that shit really mean?

Well, carbon does create global warming.  It exists naturally on the planet and is taken from the air and turned into solid matter by plants through photosynthesis.  Plants then either pass it on to other animals that eat them, or to the soil by decomposing.  Sometimes, plant matter accumulates and over time is covered by soil, layer after layer, until it is deep beneath the earth, crushed and compressed and turned into coal, oil, and natural gas.  We humans take these millions of years old plants and burn them, just like the young’uns, and thus the carbon stored inside them is released into the atmosphere.  What happens when carbon is in the air rather than in the soil is that it absorbs radiation from the sun that would usually be reflected into outer space.  Eventually it lets go again, but while the radiation is stuck in the air it warms up the atmosphere.  This is global warming.

Carbon footprints are a measure of how much carbon you personally put into the atmosphere.  You do it when you light your stove, turn on a lamp, use heating or air conditioning, drive your car, etc.  But you also put into the air indirectly, such as by buying clothes - your clothes used up energy when the materials were grown or gathered, when they were sewn, when they were dyed, and when they were (in all probability) shipped to you in a boat or truck from very far away, and that energy was most likely derived from coal, oil, or natural gas.  Some of what it used could have been hydroelectric or nuclear, wind or solar, but probably not much.  This stuff is included in your carbon footprint as well.  So essentially, what it measures is actually one category of your overall pollution.  Here’s a breakdown of how people generally emit carbon:

This is obviously really important.  I haven’t talk about it yet, but global warming should kinda be avoided.  If nothing else, global warming is likely to cause 50-80 million additional cases of malaria annually, and that’s something you really can’t ignore.  And of course, pollution in general harms all of us, and causes negative health impacts for every living thing under the sun.  But there are actually many different types of “footprints” that can show your impact on the world, and you should do your best to keep all of them down.  They include everything from nitrogen, another pollutant, to water, something there’s just not enough of.  You can use them to figure out if you’re “taking more than your share.”  But the most inclusive of them isn’t actually your carbon footprint, it’s your ecological footprint.  

The idea of the ecological footprints is that there’s only a certain amount of usable, productive land on earth - 28.2 billion acres, in fact - and that your life requires a certain amount of it.  How much land you use depends on how much food you eat, how much you consume in the way of material goods, how much you energy you use, and so on.  All of these things come from the productivity of the land.  Now, if you take that 28.2 billion acres and divvy it up between everyone alive, you get 4.7 acres per person.  And that’s enough to sustain everyone.  However, that’s not quite how we’re using it at the moment…

The average ecological footprint of any given human is 5.7 acres.  This already means we’re using a bit too much.  But if you look closer, you’ll see that in developing nations like India, the average footprint is only 2.5 acres.  That’s less than half of the global average!  Who does the rest of the land go to??  Actually, the answer is pretty predictable.  In the United States, the average ecological footprint is a whopping 23.7 acres.  The truth is that 19% of the world’s people consume over half of the world’s resources, and that’s why there’s an ecological deficit even though most people use significantly less than their share.

This is a really big deal.  Why?  Well, if people keep taking more than their share, eventually there won’t be anything left to live on.  It’s a very real threat to the security of everyone on earth.  I’ve already told you about some examples (such as in my recent bottled water entry, which showed you how water is taken and consumed by people who already have water, and who are in that instance really truly taking more than their share), and you’ll see many more in entries soon to come.  So, if you don’t want everyone, including you, to run out of the things they need just to go on living, you need to do your best to conserve the resources you use.  And start small!  Just trying to lower your energy bill will help.  It’s as simple as this: don’t forget that everything you use comes from the earth.  Every little thing.  It all started in a river or a forest or a mountain somewhere, and it was taken from that place, processed, and delivered specially for you.  And there’s nothing really that gives you the right to squander it, especially when other people go without.  If you want to use something, go ahead.  Just don’t be wasteful.

Source: Environment 6th Edition by Peter H. Raven, Linda R. Berg, and David M. Hassenzhal

  1. earthdemocracy posted this