Q & A: Ecological Footprints
Dartmouth’s sustainability coordinator, Jim Merkel, recently delivered a Thayer School Jones Seminar on sustainable design. Merkel, who holds a B.S. in electrical engineering, is on a mission to embed ecological values and practices into the College’s strategic planning, curriculum, student life, and community relationships. Much of his Jones Seminar centered on ecological footprints.
What is an ecological footprint and why is it an important measurement?
An ecological footprint estimates a human’s impact on earth. It looks at all the inputs and outputs needed to support a lifestyle. If we want to be sustainable, we need to be able to quantify human consumption. Sustainability has no teeth unless we have a metric to measure against.
What’s the average individual footprint in the U.S. and other parts of the world?
In the U.S., 24 acres per person is the average. Here at Dartmouth it’s even larger. The strongest correlation is income. In Europe, the average is between 12 and 14 acres per person. What’s interesting to note is that Europeans have a quality of life that’s comparable to ours despite having a smaller footprint. The countries of Eastern Europe and the southern hemisphere average about 6 acres per person and really poor nations average 1 to 3 acres. About 4 billion people have footprints of less than 4 acres.
How do you calculate your footprint?
There are three methods. You can use a chart to correlate income to footprint. The second method is a questionnaire that is online at myfootprint.org. The third method is filling out a detailed spreadsheet with more than 100 items. It includes categories such as food, housing, transportation, long-lasting goods, and wastes. The big ones are car, house size, utilities, and diet. Eating vegetarian versus meat is a huge impact.
What changes did you make in your own life to reduce consumption and waste?
The biggest is that I have been car-free for 16 years. I’m judicious with my fossil fuel use by using bicycles and avoiding air travel. I’ve lived in spaces ranging from 150 to 500 square feet per person. That’s putting me closer to the global average.
What was most difficult to reduce?
Things like weddings and nieces and nephews graduating from college make me choose whether to travel. It’s tough to hurt the Earth to see your family. It’s not always a clear choice inside myself.
Are there significant efficiencies to be gained by living in a community with people who are all trying to minimize their impact on the biosphere?
Yes, for sure. When you share a refrigerator with three people, it’s one-quarter the impact. When you share things you halve the footprint immediately. And then if you care for it by making it last twice as long, you’re halving it again. And if you improve your technology, you can have multiplying benefits.
Does your engineering background influence the way you approach sustainable living?
Definitely. I’m a guy who loves numbers. Things have got to make sense to me in terms of flows of resources.
Is there anything you wish engineers would keep in mind as they develop new technologies?
I’d like them to think, “What are the unintended consequences of the project?” There are going to be negative unintended consequences, so widen your awareness. Think of the impact on ecology and on social systems. When you design considering social and ecological systems, the design is going to be much tougher. It will take creativity, but for an engineer it’s just going to be more fun. For me, the harder the problem, the more fun I have with it. There’s no reason today to be designing with non-renewable materials.
When you talk to audiences about sustainability, what’s the biggest objection you encounter?
I don’t encounter that much objection. People may slip into a discussion of whether others are open-minded enough to live sustainably. The question is: can you become the doctor who takes the medicine first? I would like to challenge the engineers to show that they can live sustainably, consuming an equitable portion of the biosphere.
Of all the ways you’ve found to conserve, reuse, and re-engineer, what is your favorite?
I really like the concept of share, care, conserve. Multiplication is amazing. When you can still have a car but its impact is 1/32 of what it would be if you jumped into your car by yourself every time, it’s amazing.