Ecological footprint quiz brings Earth Day guilt

My Earth Day guilt trip through the Ecological Footprint quiz, and out the other side.

It was three Earth Days ago – back in 2007 – when I took my first Ecological Footprint quiz. Like most internet quizzes, it took less than five minutes to answer some simple questions about myself. But unlike most internet quizzes (“Which Minor Star Wars Character Are You?!”), the results had a big impact on me. If everyone on the planet lived like me, meaning, if they used as many resources to support their own food, energy, forest, and fiber consumption; humankind would need something like 3.2 Earths.

Wow.

My image of myself as the low-impact type was shattered. City-dwelling bike-commuter or not, I was consuming a lot of resources. According to the Global Footprint Network (which created the quiz), the average American requires 24 acres of biocapacity. Imagine if each American lived on 24 acres, alone.

I tried to reduce my footprint, I really did. I ate less meat, limiting myself to one meat meal a week. I biked everywhere. But then I moved further from work and downtown, and I had to drive more. And bacon is really tasty, and it comes in my favorite salad.

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Susan Burns, the CEO of the Global Footprint Network, the think-tank that advocates using the footprint for businesses, cities, countries, and the world. At the end of the interview, she mentioned how people can take the footprint quiz. “I’ve done that before,” I said. “It’s really depressing.”

“Oh, I know,” she said, sounding sympathetic.

So yesterday, I took the quiz again. It’s updated with Sims-like graphics, and you can actually make a little avatar to represent you on a trip to find out about your ecological footprint. It looks like something fun to do. The questions were much more specific than the first quiz – for example, it asks you how often you eat many kinds of meat, not just meat in general. My answers were almost all on the low-consumption end of things. So I was shocked to learn that my footprint had grown – to 4.2 Earths. And even if I took all the pledges that were offered to help me cut down on my footprint, I would still need 3.6 Earths.

I felt ecologically defeated.

I made justifications quickly. The quiz didn’t ask about how many miles I biked. It didn’t take into account that public transportation is too inefficient in my city to replace my car for many trips. And, population growth was likely a major factor in the growth of my footprint since 2007.

The quiz makes a strong point about personal consumption, but it’s also a catch-22 in terms of quizzes. Meaning, there’s no way you can get a perfect score, which in this case, would be living within the means of 1 planet. In the FAQ section, the Footprint Network explains that factored into your score are “societal impacts or services” – such as roads and infrastructure, public services, and our military. The footprint of those services are distributed in each of our individual footprints. So much of our footprint is really not under our control.

“This is why, if we want to achieve sustainability, we need to focus on two things: both our own lifestyle as well as influencing our governments,” says the FAQ.

Which brings me back to my interview with the CEO, Susan Burns. We were talking about the role for business in reducing the global footprint, which is right now creeping towards 2 Earths.

“The important thing about business is that if business takes the lead, it can influence governments very powerfully,” she said. “And the opposite is true as well. If businesses don’t get behind sustainability, they can easily block the progress of governments, too.”

And then she said something that made me feel a lot better.

“In terms of societal impacts, a lot of people want to live more sustainable lifestyles, but they don’t have choices. I mean, a lot of things are difficult. But businesses can make it easier for people, by providing products and different technologies.”

So this might mean I’m not as powerless of a consumer as I once thought. It goes like this: Consumer demand influences business, business influences government, government influences our footprint as a society. That’s heartening news, for me at least.

I guess it all comes down to taking small steps: Looking at what you consume and what you can do to change it. Next time I get lunch from that place down the street, I’ll tell them that I don’t want all that packaging around my sandwich. Maybe I’ll have to tell them several times, and get my coworkers to repeat the message, but eventually, they’ll get it. And maybe, my footprint will start shrinking.

Lindsay Patterson