Ecofootprints: My Wake Up Call

 We live on a beautiful planet.

So beautiful that it’s well worth taking care of. When I was in college, I took a number of environmental studies classes. For homework one night, we were each assigned to measure our ecofootprints to find out how many planets it would take to meet our needs if everyone on earth lived exactly like we did. I thought of myself as pretty green. I recycled, walked to school, shared housing and was frankly too broke to be a big consumer. My ecofootprint, circa 6 years ago? If everyone lived exactly as I did back then, we would need…

Over four earths.

I was crushed to realize I wasn’t living nearly as sustainably as I wanted to be. It’s something I’ve been working on ever since. I took the same quiz today to measure my eco-footprint and see if the changes my husband and I are making have made a difference. You can measure yours, too! Take the quiz here.

Some things I learned from today’s quiz:

  • My carbon footprint is 66.16 global acres, compared to the national average of 91.43. That means my footprint is still pretty big, even though I take the bus and walk almost every day. That’s because I’m still driving on several long trips every year, and taking the car to visit my in-laws, grocery shop, or do my research and clinical work over 200 miles away! I have an older model Honda Civic, and in spite of my efforts to use it less, this is one area where I could really do better.
  • Fact: Many of the steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprints are painless and simple. They can be as simple as turning the car off instead of letting it idle any time we have to wait, or taking the train instead of flying for shorter trips. Learn more here!
  • My food footprint is 7.84 global acres. The national average is 65.74. Going vegetarian and shopping locally when possible makes a big difference!
  • Fact:18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the consumption of animal products.
  • My housing footprint is 11.38 global acres. The national average is 31.58. Living in a  townhouse and minimizing water use with low flow toilets and showerheads makes a big difference here!
  • Fact: Green cleaning products reduce environmental damage and indoor air pollution, and protect your health! Easy changes to make: Use vinegar and warm water to mop, and use baking soda to scrub dishes and counters and toilets and bathtubs! Want more? Check out these recipes!
  • My goods and services footprint is 2.89 global acres. The national average is 57.66. This was the most striking difference – our decision to recycle whenever possible, to stop buying new stuff and shop mostly secondhand really reduced our household’s ecofootprint!
  • Fact: Planned obsolescence contributes to waste in a big, big way! Check out The Story of Stuff and watch a really wonderful 20 minute video on this topic! I also highly recommend The Story of Electronics.

The good news: My husband and I have made great strides toward reducing our ecofootprints, by making changes that have improved our quality of life and our well being, and I feel very inspired to keep working at it!

The bad news: If everyone made the same changes and lived exactly like we do, we would still need 2.8 earths to live on. Our total ecological footprint is still too big.

We’ve still got a long way to go, but at least we’re on our way! Anybody got any good ideas for steps I can take to reduce our ecofootprint a little bit more? What are ideas you’re putting into practice in your own lives to live lightly on the earth?

Find out your own footprint:

Ecological Footprint Quiz by Redefining Progress

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Small Houses, Big Dreams

I don’t know if home ownership is for me. So far, I’ve spent my adult life renting. Perhaps it’s the good fortune of having a string of (mostly) great landlords, but my husband and I have been perfectly happy renters. We move every few years, for school or work, and we will for the foreseeable future. It’s part of why we’re downsizing – in addition to my general desire to minify my life, it doesn’t make sense to lug tons of stuff we don’t need across the country with us this fall. Maybe we’ll always rent, but if ever we do build, I think a small home will be just right for us.

Right now we live in a townhouse, and it’s got a lot more space than we need. I’m not sure of the measurements, but it’s got two bedrooms and two and a half baths, and it’s definitely bigger than 1000 square feet. But we used to live in a 400 square foot cabin in Western North Carolina.

It was an early 20th century log cabin with a beautiful view of the mountains and four 10×10 rooms. The cabin is where we spent the first year of our marriage, and it would have been just the right size for us and the pets…if we hadn’t packed it to the gills with stuff. We won’t make that mistake again!

The tiny house movement is a bonafide phenomenon among the minimalism and sustainability blogs, and I’ve been following it with interest. There are blogs devoted entirely to the movement, blogs where the theme features prominently, and small house celebrities like Dee Williams and Jay Shafer. Although I’m impressed with anyone who can make 80 to 90 square feet work for them full time, a house that small wouldn’t make sense for a couple with three cats, a dog, and a desire to maybe expand said family down the road. We would, however, like to cut our living space in half, and there are small houses and apartments aplenty in that size range. Our downsizing plan is to part with enough of our stuff so that we can fit the rest in a studio apartment when we move (and I can’t wait to find out where we’re moving – my husband should start hearing back from graduate programs in March).  Hopefully, if we minify enough, we’ll be able to go from >1000 square feet to somewhere more like one of these apartments:

Sustainable, simple food

It started with Barbara Kingsolver, and our efforts to eat more locally, inspired by her wonderful book.

Then my household decided to give up eating meat, which meant we gave up eating like this…

and started eating more like this…

Both delicious, and I do have to confess: sometimes I still miss eating meat. I’ve cheated a couple of times, and I still eat some seafood (most frequently wild Alaskan salmon, which is sustainably harvested). But on the whole, I’ve been moving more and more toward vegetarianism. Why?

1. It’s better for me (My husband and I have each lost more than 15 pounds since switching to an unprocessed, vegetarian diet).

2. I’m not supporting factory farmed meat (for me, it was the Smithfield Farms gestation crates investigation that confirmed my vegetarian leanings – please be warned that the video of the hog farm is graphic and sad).

3. It’s more sustainable.

Disclaimer: I’m not a PETA member, or an animal rights activist, although I do have several much loved, adopted pets, and volunteered for a long time with the Humane Society through my local animal shelter. I’m not as opposed to eating meat as I am to industrial agricultural practices which are cruel to animals and totally unsustainable. Most of the people I know have been supportive, or at the very least, unoffended. But I’ve had many frustrating conversations with well intentioned vegan and vegetarian friends who have pushed their views on me. Nobody likes to be preached at. I’ve also had conversations with friends and family who do eat meat and think that my choice to give it up is either ridiculous or inconvenient.

Food, it turns out, can be a really touchy subject, and just as we use it to build community and spend time together, we can be divided by opposing views on what and how to eat. But this is my choice, and I’m sticking to it, without asking anyone else to join me. I do want to share some helpful resources, though, in case anyone else is interested in eating more sustainably or simply.

  • The Stone Soup blog has many wonderful, five ingredient, ten minute meals to choose from, with several free e-cookbooks, cooking classes, and an archive of recipes. Although they’re not all vegetarian, almost all of the recipes include substitutions to make them vegan or vegetarian. This is my go-to website for figuring out what to make for dinner that is local, unprocessed, and fast. The mushroom sarnie (which I make with local goat cheese instead of mayonnaise) is the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood pocket guides to sustainable fisheries. Although I’m phasing out fish now, for a long time I used these guides and this website to know what fish to eat and what to avoid for my own wellbeing and for the planet.
  • Shopping my local farmers’ market. When I buy at the farmers’ market, I know that the food I’m purchasing is truly local and from small farms, and I’m supporting my community and more sustainable agricultural practices at the same time. Plus, I find all sorts of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers and flours, breads and other beautiful or delicious goodies  The farmers’ market has been a wonderful Saturday morning ritual, on the days that we make it there (another confession: I’m not so successful at this in the winter, even though we’re fortunate to live near a year-round market). For help finding your own within the United States, check out Local Harvest.

Food is just one part of my life that I’m trying to minify, but it’s been one of the most fulfilling – I feel healthier and more energetic, have met some really wonderful local farmers, and I’ve become a better cook! I’ve also very nearly rediscovered my waistline, and I’m pretty happy about that.