While I think of myself as environmentally aware, I know there is much I could do to reduce my environmental impact. I am taking a class, Environmental Health 600, through UNC’s school of public health, and our second assignment was to use one of the many online carbon footprint calculators to assess each of our household footprints. This was an eye-opening experience for me.
Results from these calculations are predicated on the idea that if everyone lived as I did, we would need to support the entire human population of seven billion people. That predicate is important to understand, because with fewer people, the collective human impact on the planet would be much less than it is. My footprint was between 4 and 5 earths, and, without very radical changes in my lifestyle, there seems is very little I can do to change this. I would have to get a different job with a practical commute on public transport; I would need to become a vegetarian; I would need to move to a smaller house; and I would have to quit blogging, and give up a lot of my techno-gadgets. Yet my current resource use is less than the average American. We drive small, relatively fuel-efficient cars, including a hybrid; we eat mostly organic food, both vegetables and meat; we don’t eat out a lot; we have fewer gadgets than a lot of people I know; we don’t take luxury vacations all the time.
In short, even though I am relatively responsible, I am still part of the problem. The reason I am still part of the problem is because there are just too many people on the Earth. Yet, at my job the reproductive health and family planning efforts long associated with my employer are getting harder to fund, and we are becoming more involved in solving disease problems. While that is important work, the fact is that if we keeping managing and curing disease, it is just a numerical fact that we will add more stress to the environment. Without sincere, fully funded efforts to curb population growth, the changes we face would be dramatic.
Most people will never have the opportunity to live as comfortably as I do. There is a great deal of poverty in the world, and the poor are clamoring to improve their conditions. We have a moral responsibility to help them achieve some level of improvement. But, we also know that poverty is a relative measure; our responsibility is not to make sure every poor person has a car and a three bedroom house. Knowing we cannot support seven billion people living as richly as Westerners do today, we need to find a balance between the gluttony of the Western culture and the aspirations of the developing world. We have no moral right, however, to tell people to limit their aspirations if we are not willing to do the same. How do we begin a dialog to come up with a balance?
Here in the midst of a historic economic downturn, it is important to recognize that the economic aspirations of the West has long been tied to a globalized caste system that distorts the picture even further. Inexpensive Chinese labor, coupled with easy credit, drove our economic strength for the past few years, allowing American consumers to live beyond their means. The wealth created was all a mirage that fell apart as housing prices collapsed. Should we really be building an economy for the future based on cheap products that will be filling our landfills in just a few months? Is this building real economic security?
In the end, after considering what my carbon footprint is, I did what Americans always do: I consumed. I bought a small, $5.00 timer to time my showers, to help me save a little water. On the bottom of the timer were those familiar words, “Made in China.” I know there is more I can do, and more I will do, but old habits are hard to break. If the simple steps really could save the Earth, they would surely have worked by now, but the trouble is most people are slow to accept the simple steps, and even those of us who want to save the planet find it hard to make the difficult choices.
How about you? What are you willing to do to change your carbon footprint? To get started try out this calculator, measuring your carbon footprint.