How big is your footprint on the planet?

Published Tuesday, September 26, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

While browsing the internet a decade ago, I stumbled upon an ecological footprint calculator website.  Its premise was simple: if I completed a quick questionnaire about various aspects of my lifestyle and consumption habits, it would tell me how many hectares of land it takes to sustain me – my ecological footprint.

I was intrigued, so I completed the questionnaire.  Partly out of curiousity – but partly out of vanity too.  After all, I was ‘the green guy’; I expected it would just come back and reaffirm how well I was doing.

I answered all the questions and hit enter – and was shocked to read that if everyone on Earth lived like me, we’d need four planets.  Four!  

It was a ‘light bulb moment’ that launched me on a journey to consume less – a journey that continues to this day.

Updated calculator

Ever wonder what your ecological footprint is?  

You can find out quickly and easily, thanks to a new and updated online calculator developed by the Global Footprint Network, an international organization dedicated to sustainable resource management.  The questionnaire can be completed in just a few minutes, and results are provided instantly.  

The questions fall under the three broad categories that constitute our largest impacts on the planet: food, housing and transportation.  And don’t worry – they’re very simple; you won’t need to dig out your grocery receipts or have an accountant on standby! 

The questions

Under food, the calculator asks how often you eat animal-based products like beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products – never, occasionally, often or very often.  What percentage of the food you eat is unprocessed, unpackaged or locally grown?

Under housing, the calculator asks whether you live in a house, duplex, row house or apartment.  It asks how big it is; how many people live in it; and how energy efficient it is (from ‘hardly’ to ‘very’).   It asks how much trash you put out compared to your neighbours, from much less to much more.  

Under transportation, the calculator asks how far you travel by car each week, and how fuel efficient your vehicle is.  It asks how often you carpool (from never to always); how much you use public transportation; and how many hours you fly each year.

A wild card

There’s one more variable that the calculator quietly factors into your footprint, without your having to answer any questions about it.  It’s your share of the ‘public footprint’ of your country: roads and other infrastructure; public services like health and education; the military; and other government operations.  

We Canadians have it pretty good – hence, our ‘public footprint’ is already significant, even before we start adding elements of our own lifestyles.  

Gulp - results

Ready to take the questionnaire?  Set aside ten minutes, and visit www.footprintcalculator.org.

Spoiler alert – you may get a splash of reality as I did when I first completed it.  The average Canadian’s ecological footprint is five planets

But take heart from these three points:

First, a significant portion of your footprint is that wild card above, your share of our country’s public footprint.  While out of your direct control, you can help reduce it by pressuring our elected leaders and making sustainability a key factor in how you vote every time, at all levels of government.  Our political system can make things happen quickly when enough voters speak up. 

Secondly, the calculator will identify where your largest impacts are – so consider it a roadmap for taking actions that will make the biggest difference. 

Third, the actions you take can and will make a significant difference.  I say that with certainty, because the calculator tells me that my footprint today is about half what it was a decade ago.  Better, but the journey continues.