Monday, April 18, 2011

Seeing Our Footprint

I know I've commented before on the number of PR lists that I'm on as a blogger. Every day brings emails touting some new process or product, a must-go conference, or a new book on energy or the environment to review. Even the subset of these that truly interests me and that I have every intention of writing about mostly gets swept aside by more urgent topics or the needs of my consulting clients. That nearly happened to a clever little book I received from National Geographic called "Human Footprint." I ran across it on my desk again today and decided it deserved a quick mention before I pass it to my daughter, who has been demanding it for weeks.

The book--more of a booklet at just 32 pages--is part of the National Geographic Kids line. It seems to be related to a "Find Your Footprint" contest and other materials on NatGeo's website. I had hoped to find at least some of the book's photography online, because its approach is extremely visual. It displays the accumulation of a lifetime's worth of consumption decisions such as the more than 13,000 pints of milk the average American will drink--and the Louisiana-sized grazing footprint of the cows that supply it--a huge collection of rubber ducks symbolizing the 28,433 showers we'll take, and my favorite, the 43,371 cans of soda we'll drink. On pages 28-29 they display all this stuff in front of a typical home, including the dozen cars the average American will own. And to tie this topic to the normal theme of this blog, those cars are estimated to drive an average of 627,000 miles. At the current average fleet fuel economy, that represents more than 25,000 gallons of gasoline, or 600 barrels, yielding on the order of 250 tons of CO2. And of course every product arrayed in front of that house represents an additional energy expenditure, as well as a recycling challenge for the resulting waste of all kinds.

The explicit message is to get kids to think about the consequences of all these choices, and then make smarter choices with reduced impact. The author provides some suggestions in that regard. But I wonder if the bigger effect will be on the parents who read it with their children. When I showed my daughter the pile of 3,796 disposable diapers on page 7, she just laughed. They clearly meant a lot more to me than to her. Now, you might argue that adults ought to be able to visualize their impact on the planet without gimmicks like assembling decades' worth of consumption in one place and photographing the result. Perhaps, but I suspect most of us are so distracted by busy lives that we rarely mentally integrate a week's worth of the contents of our trash and recycling cans over the thousands of such trips to the curb we make in a lifetime, let alone picturing the resources that went into making all these goods, from mines, oil & gas wells, power plants, factories and farms all over the world.

It's daunting, and no matter how one might view this from a social, ethical or political perspective, it seems pretty clear that the inescapable consequence of population growth, and especially of the dramatic improvement in incomes and wealth that is happening in large parts of the developing world, is that our individual footprints of both energy and material goods will be under increasing pressure in the years ahead. That's at the core of the drive to become more energy efficient, in order to avoid the worst scenarios of resource competition that otherwise lie ahead of us.

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