For those of us who’ve spent our entire lives in the United States, we may not realize that the American standard of living is vastly different from those around the world. Because of this, the ecological footprint for people living in the U.S. can be quite shocking.
An ecological footprint is a measurement of the impact that you have on the environment based on the amount of resources you consume. Many websites can calculate this for you, and some research has been released ranking countries on this measurement.
At footprintnetwork.org, you can enter information about how you live your life and they will calculate how many Earths it would take to support your lifestyle if all seven billion people lived like you.
My lifestyle is fairly modest. I mostly take public transportation or my bike. I’m a student living on financial aid so I don’t buy large amounts of consumer goods, and I always recycle. But even with this modest lifestyle, if everyone lived like me we would need the resources of 4.6 Earths to support the demand.
The Global Footprint Network, which operates the website mentioned above, provides a questionnaire to determine the resource intensity of your lifestyle.
One important factor is your diet. Vegetarians consume far less resources than meat eaters. This is because animals are a very inefficient source of calories compared to something like corn or rice. Studies have shown that we produce enough calories to feed 11 billion people, but people still starve because much of these calories are allocated to feeding animals and producing inefficient food sources.
The next set of questions involves the amount of trash you produce. To determine this, the website asks how much you buy. Things like clothes, books, magazines, furniture and electronic goods can all increase your ecological footprint.
Following this are questions about your living situation. Living in a high-rise apartment building is more efficient than living in a detached home in the suburbs. Other factors play a significant role as well, like square footage, insulation, types of appliances and type of exterior.
Last is a series of questions regarding your transportation habits. Studies looking at improving our environmental situation have praised cities because of their efficient potential. Tightly packed populations require far less transportation compared to populations that are spread over great distances.
These questions include issues like, “What forms of transportation do you use?” These can range from a motorcycle, to a train, to an SUV. Each of these different forms of transportation consumes different amounts of resources. This is often the category where people notice the biggest differences between the U.S. and other nations. Scooters are popular in Southeast Asia, while Americans are known for their love of off-road vehicles that never leave the pavement.
At the end of the questionnaire you receive your number of necessary planets and a breakdown of categories that consume the most resources, from food, to mobility, to services, to shelter. It also shows which resources are used the most by your lifestyle.
Finally, you are given the option to go back and make changes to your responses to see how you could cut back on your ecological footprint.
Just to see how few planets I could get, I changed all my answers to the lowest possible amount. I was a vegetarian, living in a high-rise, using no electricity, producing no trash, requiring no transportation and never taking a vacation. Expecting to be using less than one planet, I was shocked to see that my seemingly impossible lifestyle had only lowered my impact to 3.2 Earths.
How is this possible? The Global Footprint Network’s answer for this is that our ecological footprint is not wholly determined by individuals. We live in societies that will consume and use resources regardless of our personal lifestyles. This includes factors like the transportation needed for the national economy, the resources needed for military equipment and operation, and the resources needed to maintain infrastructure.
My journey to determine my ecological footprint ended much as you would expect any venture that looks at the human impact on the environment: certainly depressing, while still slightly hopeful.
Although my lifestyle and society are well beyond the means of this planet, there are steps that I can take. If similar steps are taken by others, we can someday only require the resources of one planet. I don’t think Mars will be producing much anytime soon.