I am a senior at Gonzaga University (’17) from San Jose, California. I am currently in Dr. Henning’s Environmental Ethics course and wrote this essay as part of an assignment. As a Political Science major with minors in Philosophy and General Business, I wanted this essay to reflect the ethical tensions that arise in our current political, economic, and religious landscape in relation to the environment.
Coming into this assignment, I knew that my lifestyle and consumption habits would not be sustainable at all if everyone lived like me. A few years ago, I took an ecological footprint quiz that showed that there would need to be four planets to maintain my consumption of resources. As a young person from the West, specifically the United States, I knew that I consume much more than the average person from the Third World. From my own idiosyncrasies to the bigger forces, such as capitalism and the consumer culture, personal and contextual elements combine to cause an unsustainable lifestyle. Without self-reflection, I would definitely continue down this path.
After completing the ecological footprint quiz, it showed that my lifestyle was completely unsustainable. In fact, the detrimental effects from my lifestyle increased since I took the quiz about three years ago. According to the Earth Day quiz, I would require 5.6 planets for my lifestyle to remain the same. In light of the quiz, the biggest contributions to carbon emissions in my lifestyle were my eating habits. From eating meat at least once a day to buying packaged food, the emissions that occur from the farm to the factory to my mouth are far greater than I expected. Furthermore, my guilty pleasures of buying hamburgers from Wendy’s or burritos from Taco Bell surely exacerbate these results. Thus, I intend to decrease my intake of meat and cut down the number of visits that I make to fast food establishments. For the rest of the semester, I will only eat meat every other day and only for one meal. In addition, I will only eat fast food once a week instead of multiple times each week. As a person without any medical conditions, I realize that my meat consumption is solely for pleasurable experiences instead of emanating out of necessity. Next, it takes 24.8 acres of the Earth’s productive acre to support my lifestyle, which produces 26.2 tons of carbon dioxide. This 26.2 tons figure is twenty-six times more than the preferred amount of one ton per person. I was incredibly shocked by this discovery, as I truly did not know how detrimental my eating habits were for the environment. Then, I took the Nature Conservancy quiz, which found that I emit a whopping thirty-four tons of carbon dioxide per year. However, it was scary to find out that this is still eleven percent better than the average amount. If I lived in Lebanon or Paraguay, I am sure that my carbon emissions would far exceed the average citizen of either of these countries. In our post-industrial technological society, the consumption of goods and services is a defining feature of our lives within this system.
$4? What about the emissions?
After calculating my family’s carbon footprint, the test showed that my family caused about sixty-nine thousand pounds of carbon emissions per year, which is almost thirty-five tons. The average for my northern Californian zip code is about eighty thousands pounds for a family of three, which places my family below the average. My parents are surprisingly good recyclers, which helped lower the score on the assessment. In addition, since we do not have air conditioning, we only expend energy related to temperature control during the winter months. On Monday night, I spoke with my parents about the results of the ecological footprint quiz centered on emissions caused by our family. For some background information, both of my parents would identity as moderate Democrats with Irish and Italian Catholic backgrounds. Whether this has a major effect on my parents’ usage of resources, I am not completely sure. However, my parents take their political and religious commitments seriously and our discussions centered on these issues. Crucially, the most relevant conversation with my family centered on my dad’s career and his Catholic beliefs. Instead of focusing on my household, I wanted to focus on my dad’s past as a driving instructor. Although my dad graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in Education, he eventually worked as a driving instructor starting in 1992. In 2009, he opened his own driving school business, which is relatively successful for a small business. My dad and one of his longtime colleagues serve as the sole driving instructors of the business, which operates throughout Santa Clara County. While my dad and I have broached the topic of ecological damage previously, this was the first time that we truly delved into the issue. First, I showed him my estimate of how many tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere due to the driving school. While I believe that my dad was taken aback, he basically responded, “It’s unfortunate, but this is my livelihood and that will need to come first. I’ve been driving for over twenty-five years now and this is what I know.” For most people, I am positive that this is a common response. With the pressures of raising a family, paying for college, and living in a high-priced area like San Jose, economic concerns often take precedence over ethical concerns. Unfortunately, when this maxim is universalized, we constantly bear the effects of the “profit over people” mentality that wreaks havoc on the economic, environmental, and political spheres. Based on all the time spent with my dad, he has a lot of emotional intelligence and depth that help him navigate the world. However, when he is focused on business, he can be more of the stereotypical calm, cold, and rationalist figure who tries to maximize his profits. Nevertheless, I knew that I could get beyond this mindset by bringing up his Catholic faith and his admiration for Pope Francis. I talked about Laudato Si and how the Pope issued an urgent call to protect the environment utilizing Catholic principles along with modern economics and science. In response, my dad replied, “I know. I love Francis and how he changed the focus of the Church. He is someone who speaks to your mom and I. When it comes to the poor and his empathy for gay people, I am all on board. How can I not be on board when he talks about the environment? In a way, I am trapped between the stresses of life and my religion. It’s not always easy to find a middle ground if there even is one. I will need to think about it.” At this juncture, I saw the dilemma that many people of good will face in the modern era. Balancing religious, economic and ethical concerns is not an enviable task and I know that my dad wrestles with it. For him, at least economically, it is better that people buy and drive cars instead of using public transportation. Even if it reduced carbon emissions, my dad’s business would suffer if San Jose installed an expansive light-rail system. In addition, I have been privileged to attend college and live in a safe community with plenty of opportunities. How do I navigate my life given that my dad’s career causes large carbon emissions for a single person? On a similar note, my mom mentioned that she struggles with the fact that her father was an engineer for a major weapons manufacturer during the Vietnam War. Besides the environmental damage that hit Vietnam, the humanitarian aspects are also appalling. Thus, she noted that, “I feel lucky and unlucky. I couldn’t have made it to this point without my dad’s work. At what cost though?” In that sense, I could not agree more with my mom in her statement.
My dad in front of a driving school in Paris, France.
In conclusion, my ecological footprint quiz demonstrated that my current consumption habits are completely unsustainable, especially when it comes to eating meat. In terms of my household’s ecological footprint, it is actually relatively low. However, considering my dad’s driving school business, our family contributes greatly to the emission of carbon and benefits from the widespread usage of cars as a means of transportation. From my conversations with my parents, I learned of their anxieties, principles, and personal histories that primarily shape how they approach their ecological footprint.