We in the industrialized world make a greater difference because our ecological footprint, our impact on the condition of the environment, is 40 to 50 times larger than that of people in the developing world. —Maurice Strong
We learn in elementary school the basic balance of life on this planet. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants, all the green living things around us, take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. Just that easily, we keep each other alive, a carefully balanced symbiotic relationship that has been in place for millions of years. When perfectly balanced, neither leaves a footprint. Such a balance is difficult to maintain,though. As our population has increased, we have, partially of necessity, reduced the amount of green around us. This throws the whole planet out of balance and, because that balance is so precise, any imbalance in either direction causes bad things to happen. There’s no point arguing about who is at fault, we must focus our effort on reducing the size of the scar we leave and bring us closer to the balance between carbon life forms and plants that keep life sustainable.
Welcome to Earth Day, 2016. This is the 46th, I think, celebration and the day and normally we would encourage people to be out planting stuff. However, for most of us in the Midwest, weather conditions are not exactly cooperative. The ground is rather wet and muddy from yesterday’s rain and there may be more on the way before this afternoon is done. Not exactly prime planting weather. Still, there are things one can do to help address your impact on the plant and one of those is measuring your carbon footprint.
the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.
The term sounds like some mix of science and feel-good pseudo-spirituality, but it is a real measure of just how much an impact you are having upon the planet. Understand, this is more than just the amount of carbon dioxide you emit when you take a breath. If your carbon footprint were only limited to that measure, we wouldn’t have any problems at all. The issue comes that, especially in industrialized countries such as the United States, anything we do that involves consuming fuel most likely also adds to the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the air. Because the greater number of our vehicles run on fossil fuels that release carbon and the majority of our electric power comes from burning coal that releases carbon, every time we so much as turn on a light we are adding to our carbon footprint.
This, then, brings us to the question of just how much carbon does one person produce? Obviously, that answer varies from one person to the next. There are online calculators at the EPA website as well as the Nature Conservancy that can determine the full size of the carbon footprint for your entire household. These calculate factors such as home energy, food consumption, recycling, and transportation.
What I found this year, though, is a tool that measures where my footprint is the largest: online. We tend to not think about it, but when we are using our computers and accessing the internet, not only are we consuming energy in our home or workplace, we’re also consuming energy at the location of at least two servers, one that belongs to our Internet service provider and another that holds the website we’re accessing. The more tabs we have open, the larger the footprint we’re leaving.
There are two things that make this measurement tool cool. First, it’s a free plug-in for the Chrome browser. I’m not sure what the technological limitations are that prevent it from being available for other browsers, but at least for this year, Chrome users are the only ones who can take advantage of it. Second, and this is what sold me, it is sponsored by the makers of my favorite Scotch: Johnnie Walker. The whiskey distiller has pledged to plant up to 75,000 trees to offset the online carbon footprint measured by the plug-in. More details about the brand’s involvement can be found in this article.
I installed the plug-in on my desktop just about 24 hours previous to my writing this article. In that length of time, my online browsing has generated 3467 grams of carbon, roughly the equivalent of using a microwave for over 365 minutes. To offset that amount of carbon, Johnnie Walker will need to plant 37.2 trees.
37 trees in 24 hours. Extrapolate that out and I would need to plant 13,505 trees a year just to offset the amount of carbon generated by my daily computer use. That’s a lot of trees. Obviously, I need to find ways to make my footprint considerably smaller. Both the EPA and Nature Conservancy have plenty of ideas for how to do that so I won’t bother repeating them now. I’m already running a bit long here. You know best which options work well for you.
Our relationship to this planet is delicate. We cannot afford to continue growing our population and our cities and our economies in the manner to which we have become accustomed without incurring some very serious consequences. Already this year, every month has been the hottest on record. While spending a little less time online or using tools to put unused tabs to sleep may not seem like much of a big deal, the cumulative effort of everyone measuring and watching their carbon footprint adds up.
I don’t know if my boys are going to ever give me grandchildren. They might. Maybe. If they do, I would like to know that my grandchildren can enjoy playing outside safely, can breathe the air and drink the water safely, and not have to alter their lifestyle because of bad choices we’re making now. Measure your footprint and make some adjustments.
For Earth Day.