I am a senior Human Physiology major at Gonzaga (’17), and I am currently taking Dr. Henning’s Environmental Ethics Class. The following essay was assigned as part of the class. We were prompted to examine our ecological footprint and outline some specific steps we will to take to reduce that footprint. Through this assignment, I learned a lot about how my daily actions affect the environment, and I have a new outlook on my own environmental ethic.
Until very recently, I considered myself an environmentally friendly person. As a native Seattleite, my dad taught me to appreciate the natural world around me through cycling, skiing, and hiking. He told me stories of how he grew up detesting cars, seeing them as giant hunks of gas-guzzling metal, and through these stories, he taught me the importance of cycling as a form of exercise and commuting. My dad has always been an avid recycler and composter, and excess waste legitimately angers him. Even now as an adult, he continues to force these values upon me, never letting me get away with my lazy habit of throwing away paper towels instead of composting them. As a born and raised Catholic, my mom taught me to appreciate every aspect of God’s creation. She was raised in San Antonio, Texas, which in my opinion, has become a giant strip mall over the years. Even after 30 years of living in Washington, she is still amazed and surprised at the beauty of the natural world around her. Together, my parents’ faith and love of nature instilled a set of nature-protecting values in me. However, after calculating my carbon footprint, I now realize that protecting the planet means so much more than recycling, composting, and not owning a car. Traveling, purchasing packaged foods, shopping for clothes, and maintaining electronics all impact the environment more than I previously realized. I understand now that I have a long way to go before I can live up to my own values and consider myself an environmentally friendly person, and to do this, I will identify specific and simple steps that I can take to set myself in the right direction.
A number of online carbon footprint calculators are available to indicate the amount of carbon emissions that an individual produces per year, and give some suggestions on how to lessen the damage. These calculators must be taken with a grain of salt due to lack of precision, but are nevertheless a good tool for self-improvement (Padgett). The Earth Day Network’s Ecological Footprint Quiz takes information about the user’s biological consumption including housing, utilities, travel, food, clothing, and appliances (“Ecological Footprint Quiz.”). The quiz uses a formula to divide this consumption by the amount of earth that is needed to produce it, and then the tells the user how much of the earth’s area it takes to sustain his or her lifestyle. I went into this quiz naïvely thinking that, if most people lived like me, our planet would be in good shape. I was surprised to find out that it takes about 17.2 acres per year to support my lifestyle. This equates to about 17.1 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Additionally, the quiz informed me that, if everyone were to live like me, we would need 3.9 planet earths. The Nature Conservancy Carbon Footprint quiz uses a similar approach to calculate their users’ footprints, but asks even more detailed questions about housing, food consumption, travel, and shopping (“Raise Your Voice.”). The formula from this quiz calculated that I use about 22 tons of CO2 per year. There is some significant disagreement between the results of these two quizzes despite their similar algorithms. Therefore, it is difficult to know exactly what my true carbon footprint is. The takeaway, though, is the fact that my lifestyle has a substantial impact on the earth. Even if the CO2 levels are completely off, the footprint quizzes gave me some insight on what types of factors impact the environment – including factors that I had never considered as environmentally detrimental.
Supposedly, each person would be able to emit only two tons of CO2 per year if we want to avoid catastrophic warming on our planet. If this is true, my carbon footprint is clearly not sustainable. According to the Earth Day Network Ecological Footprint Quiz and the Nature Conservancy Carbon Footprint quiz, it is implausible for any United States citizen to reduce emission to two tons of CO2 per year. So as a Unites States citizen, it’s not likely that I would be able to bring my carbon emissions down to a sustainable level, even if I changed several of my habits. While this fact is discouraging, it does not mean I have no options. One option is to purchase carbon offsets (Broome). Carbon offsets are a general term for ways in which a person can compensate for the carbon that he or she emits into the atmosphere. While there are ways, such as planting trees, that one can offset carbon emissions, it is often done monetarily through supporting carbon offsetting companies. These companies offset carbon in a variety of ways – some trap CO2 from entering into the atmosphere, some plant trees, some prevent forestation… The majority of what they do is good. However, as a college student, most of my money goes toward my education, housing, and food. If I spent my money on carbon offsetting, even at the low price that it is offered at, it would diminish the funds that could go towards more expensive, environmentally friendly products as well as the funds that go to educating myself about our ecological crisis. Carbon offsetting has its place with large companies, but on an individual level, it is more helpful to think purchasing carbon offsets as donating to environmental agencies. In this way, it becomes a donation in addition to carbon emission reduction, rather than an easy-out substitute for emission reduction. Down the line, when I am able to afford more than just food, housing, and education, I plan to donate to environmental agencies, but for now, I will focus my efforts on changing my lifestyle. This may not bring my carbon emissions down to a sustainable level, but it will get me a lot closer than where I am right now.
Two areas of my life in which I can make impactful changes are waste production and travel. It is easy to purchase food that appears “healthy”, but, in reality, is heavily processed and packaged. To reduce my waste production, I will work on buying primarily organic and non-processed foodstuffs that are either packaged in recyclable packaging or not packaged at all. Additionally, I will continue to use reusable grocery bags and produce bags. Travel is another area where I can reduce my waste production. I do not have a car, and rarely rely on my friends to drive me around, so I am off to a good start. However, when I go home for breaks during the school year, I often fly instead of carpooling. It’s not difficult to find a ride from my college city of Spokane to my home city of Seattle, and carpooling with another student who is already driving to the Seattle area will save gas and money.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Household Carbon Footprint Calculator, my family’s carbon footprint is about 15.4 tons of CO2 per year. This quiz considers the type and amount of each fuel source that is used each year, the number of miles accumulated on each household vehicle along with each vehicle’s gas mileage, and the amount of waste that is recycled within each household. As with other carbon footprint quizzes, it is important to take this result with a grain of salt. No carbon footprint quiz takes every aspect of CO2 emission into account, and this one especially leaves out several factors involving material consumption and waste production. However, the takeaway from this quiz is that, in general, my family’s household carbon emissions are substantially lower than that of other families in the United States, but there are still several areas in which improvements could be made. There is not much that could be changed in the waste production category – we already recycle and compost all that we can. In terms of home energy use, my family also does very well. As an example of this, whenever we have people over, they often ask us to turn the heat up because my parents keep the thermostat turned down so low. The area that the largest improvements can be made is in the transportation category, and this is what I brought up when I asked them to make a commitment to improve their carbon footprint.
At first, when I asked my parents to review the results of the EPA’s Household Carbon Footprint Calculator, I asked generally what commitments they were willing to make, and my dad responded, “I’ll commit to everything”. He mentioned that the quiz needed to include all forms of transportation to be more accurate, which I agreed with, but instead of bringing on a lecture about the inaccuracy of carbon footprint quizzes and the need for all people to use his “green points system”, I decided to pursue my mom. Unlike my dad, my mom does not bike commute to work. She works almost twenty miles away from our home, and she often is at work for ten to twelve hours, depending on her work load. She is also enrolled in a fitness program that takes time out of her mornings and occasionally evenings as well. This means that she racks up a lot of driving miles and it is implausible for her to ride her bike without cutting into sleep hours. Knowing that she was wary of gas-guzzling criticism from my dad, I called my mom anyway and asked her if she was willing to do anything about this issue. She committed to attempting to take the bus once a week. While this sounds like a small commitment to make, this commitment could save her from driving 200 to 300 miles from now until April. If she continued this trend for a year, she could potentially reduce her carbon emissions up to about 0.83 tons of CO2 per year, according to the EPA (“Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle.”).
Prior to researching the factors that go into CO2 production and mitigation, I was unaware of the effect of my lifestyle on the environment. Despite the imprecision of online carbon footprint calculator results (Padgett), the process of going through them enlightens users of how their actions affect the world. I am no longer blind to the consequences of my actions, and I can therefore no longer sit idly and criticize owners of gas-guzzling Suburbans or my friends who throw their apple cores in the garbage instead of the compost. I am just as guilty as they are of not protecting the planet. To combat the damage that I am doing now and the damage that I have done in the past, I will work on creating less waste from the food that I eat, I will travel by carpooling with others rather than flying alone, and I have encouraged my mom to utilize public transportation more often. These small steps in the right direction will expectantly continue to grow throughout the next few years and influence those around me, further amplifying the effect.
Broome, John. “What Is Ofsetting.” Climate Matters: Ethics In a Warming World. Johanneshov: MTM, 2016. 85-89. Print.
“Ecological Footprint Quiz.” Ecological Footprint Quiz. Earth Day Network, 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
“Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle.” Environmental Protection Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency, May 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
“Household Carbon Footprint Calculator.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
Padgett, J. Paul, et al. “A comparison of carbon calculators.” Environmental impact assessment review 28.2 (2008): 106-115.
“Raise Your Voice.” Free Carbon Footprint Calculator | The Nature Conservancy. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.