Carbon Footprints and Moral Dilemmas

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.





  1. I can relate to much of what you have shared here. When I took the same footprint quizzes I also found that the biggest contributor was my eating habits. In response to those results, I tried to implement a similar approach you had, which was to decrease the amount of meat I was consuming. And so far it has been working out alright, although it does sometimes get tempting with a college student budget, to buy cheaper food instead of slightly more expensive but more sustainable options. And that economic angle ties in to another thing that I found relatable, which were the results from my family’s footprint. The results from the quiz also showed that my family was below average, and I think a big contributor to that was the fact that we had solar panels installed on our house and it has allowed us to generate all the electricity we need. However the biggest contributor to emissions came from transportation and driving cars. For context, my family lives in Hawaii and both work at a hospital on the other side of the island. The current public transportation infrastructure does not allow for my parents to use that as a viable way of commuting to work. In discussing the results from the quiz, both my parents were very open to and aware of the current ecological crisis and the contribution that greenhouse gas emissions have. But in discussing possible ways to help reduce the emissions from transportation, it was difficult to come up with any viable option. Moving closer to work, which could allow them to walk/bike to work could be possible, but this would be very difficult to do from an economic perspective as home prices have been ever increasing in Hawaii. Finding work closer to our current home, also isn’t possible as there are no hospitals nearby. Overall, my family is also facing the same problems with the emissions related to transportation and in discussing this issue there is a struggle move away from the benefits of cars as their means of transportation.

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  2. Your experience with the ecological footprint quiz reflects much of what I wrote about in my own footprint reflection. If everyone lived like me, 4.3 Earths would be required to sustain everyone. For about two months, I have stopped eating meat as well. I began by not eating red meat and then one day I figured I would try to stop eating meat for a few days. When I retook the quiz a few weeks ago, my carbon footprint reduced and only 2.8 Earths would be required to sustain everyone. At first, I was excited that eating less meat had a noticeable and positive effect; however, I am still disappointed that I could not reduce my footprint to one Earth. Like you, I found it difficult to reduce my family’s footprint due to their habits they have already established like driving to work. Similarly to how your father relies on transpiration for business, my dad travels frequently for his job and it is difficult to try to find a comfortable and economic transportation system that is more environmentally friendly. I appreciate your view that people’s ecological footprint is shaped by their principles and past.

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  3. Nick,
    I can most definitely relate to your parents as I too am a middle-aged adult with a family. We have 5 sons and as much as I would like to think that we are doing a decent job of limiting our carbon footprint, the reality is that we just are not doing enough. Although we have the desire to make profound impacts, it is difficult when there are factors that can not necessarily be changed, for instance, the size of my family is unlikely to change lest there be some tragic event. In addition, here in Spokane, we have horrible public transportation options, so it is unrealistic that I could get all 5 children to their activities and commitments, plus get myself to work and school efficiently enough that the tasks could be accomplished. Your dad’s moral dilemma resonates with me as well because I too am a Christian and do believe that God wants us to set aside our own self- serving agendas and be responsible caretakers of the earth. I strongly believe that God created all things intentionally and for a specific purpose. I do not believe that God created everything simply for humankind alone. The God I know is likely very disappointed in the way we have acted toward His creation. The fact is, you cannot be a reader of the Bible and not understand that God values everything that He created according to His own plan and purpose. Although He clearly expected humans to be care-takers of the earth, it seems rather contradictory to His character that He would want us, people created in His own image, to treat creation, for which He expected us to be sub-creators, with carelessness, neglect and disrespect.
    At one point I believe that the universe and all within it were in perfect harmony and homeostasis, but that is clearly not the case any longer, and as such there will inevitably be negative consequences that arise. Pope Francis says, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message. We have no such right,” (17). The fickle part is trying to understand our own environmental ethic and what we can and thus should do as appose to what we cannot do.

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  4. Nick,
    I find your response to your Footprint assessment interesting. I’m curious if you actually changed your habits and / or have kept them up in the year since you have proposed this change. I’ve been a vegetarian essentially my whole life. Since as early as I can remember, with the exception for a year or two in high school, I’ve abstained from eating meat. My mother didn’t eat much meat growing up, and I didn’t enjoy the taste much, so it was something I never really missed. There were two years where I’d eat occasionally eat chicken and fish, but as I learned how bad it was for the environment, so I stopped. People are surprised that I’m vegetarian because I don’t get preachy about it (I haven’t met a preachy vegetarian despite what pop culture stereotypes us all to be). I can’t argue about reducing meat consumption based on enjoyment of a food because I’ve never had a strong liking for meat. I find it would be hypocritical of me to criticize someone’s eating habits like that. When such a topic comes up, I voice ethical concerns regarding carbon emissions and water consumption, but it’s not something I go around spreading like I’m “holier than thou”. I think this is another area where the US needs a cultural shift. Unfortunately, meat is an integral part of US society at the cost of the environment, but as vegetarianism gains traction, the US can begin to decrease the environmental impact that comes with the industry.

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