Ecological Footprints & the Big Picture

Chances are you've heard the term "ecological footprint" or "carbon footprint." But did you know that taking this kind of quiz can help you understand your impact on the planet, and prioritize changes in those parts of your life that have the greatest impact? Here's how it works.

When you take an ecological footprint quiz, you answer a bunch of questions about the way you currently live - everything from how much you spend on heating or cooling bills to your travel preferences to your diet. At the end, using a bunch of aggregated data (usually tailored to your region), the quiz will generate not only a "footprint" for what activities like yours require of the planet, but often a sense of how this fits in the larger picture. One of the quizzes I like best shows how many earths would be needed to support humanity if everyone currently living used the resources you do.

Every one of these quizzes is slightly different, but they do tend to agree on the big things. If you travel by plane, that's almost certainly the most damaging single activity you're engaged in, and reducing it (if you have viable alternatives) could be the single most important step you take in reducing your impact on the planet. And that's why I think it's worth taking one; they give you a glimpse of the big picture, and they show that a relatively small number of changes in your day-to-day routines can make a real difference in your personal impact on the planet we share.

Drawbacks: carbon footprint quizzes aren't terribly accurate or precise. By definition, they deal with big picture data. But most importantly, they don't point out the real benefits associated with changing those daily routines - increased health when you replace a commute by car with one by bicycle or train, more local connections when you go to the farmer's market, lower costs for your municipality when you choose drought-tolerant landscaping instead of a lawn that needs regular watering. Those added benefits and win-win-win situations - and the harmonies they bring to lives with too much discord - are the real reason sustainability is catching on, and the reason so many people are passionate about it.

Quizzes: The Center for Sustainable Economy has a comprehensive ecological footprint quiz at www.myfootprint.org that I recommend starting with. You can find a number of alternates by searching for "ecological footprint quiz". If you're really curious about how the quizzes work, try taking them a few times and just changing a few of your answers. Just switching from buying "most" things used to "all" things used can make a surprisingly big difference.