Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Using Yourself to Understand the Global

When I first started trying to shrink my carbon footprint (about 20 years ago), I was doing so largely because I felt guilty for the damage I was doing through my daily activities. That’s a pretty good reason, but it’s not the most important one for me anymore.

Of course, there are lots of reasons – that guilt; lower utility, travel, and grocery bills; unclutter your life and your home; get in better shape by walking and biking and more. All these reasons matter a great deal, but, for me, the most important reason to shrink my footprint is to learn, and to learn for action.

Twenty years ago was seven jobs, six houses (the first was a rental), and two apartments ago. I’ve gone from being a single guy renting a tiny house to a married father of two living in a smallish house (with some bigger residences in between). I’ve had jobs with long commutes, with walkable commutes, to the commute I have now where I walk downstairs to my computer. All of my jobs in that stretch of time have required at least a bit of work-related travel, but I’m now doing more than ever.

All of those jobs have been about helping people understanding the world from a scientific perspective. Studying your carbon footprint and how to reduce it can be a great strategy for building understandings of your place in the world.

For more than half of the twenty years I’ve been trying to reduce my footprint, I’ve used calculators like the one from the Global Footprint Network to gain a sense of what my ecological footprint is, or to figure out what my carbon footprint is (which is a slightly different concept) I've used the Nature Conservancy's calculator. If you don't know about carbon or ecological footprints, these links are great places to start. Both give good overviews of the related science, and both allow you to change variables and immediately see how that changes your footprint (although the impact of changing airplane travel wasn't working on the Global Footprint Network when I fiddled with it this afternoon).

During the 20 or so years I’ve been thinking about my lifestyle in terms of a carbon footprint, the size of that footprint has gone up and down. That's not surprising based on the changes in my life over that time. It's disappointing to me that it's not gone down consistently and I hope to redirect the trend in footprint size downward.

But I also know that just changing my footprint isn't really going to reduce climate change very much if that's the end of what I do.

However, is is a logical place to start. A key idea informing my work as an educator is to use the local to understand the global. That's central to place-based learning and place-based learning is, in my opinion essential to effective Earth system science education generally and to developing climate literacy specifically. And what's more local than you?

Reduce your carbon footprint. You probably know many of the basic things that need to be done (and if you don't looking back through previous entries in this blog can get you well on your way). But don't let reducing your footprint be an end in itself. Use the study of the environmental impacts as a gateway to understand broader climate and environmental issues.

It can be depressing to visit the different footprint calculators and see what happens when you reduce everything as much as the software allows. You can't get to zero. You can't get to a footprint small enough to be sustainable if you live in the United States (on these calculators) because governments have big footprints, and you contribute to that whether you like it or not.

So, you can't get to zero or to sustainable by yourself. You need to be a part of something bigger. Getting to sustainable requires collective action. Figure out how to reduce your own footprint as much as possible and help others do the same, then (or at the same time) work to change the larger society.

What ideas do you have to nurture that collective action?

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