Of footprints and badges

“Judge each day not by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”
-Robert Louis Stephenson

With the year drawing to a close, I thought it a good time to calculate the size of my household’s carbon footprint.

What I ended up calculating was more like our family’s carbon heel print, because many of the ways we exude climate-altering carbon are very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, at least with any degree accuracy.

It’s the third year in a row I’ve run the numbers. For the last two I’ve used the Environmental Protection Agency’s free online calculator. It measures the carbon dioxide given off from driving automobiles and from home energy use. It does not factor in airline travel but it does give some credit for recycling metal, glass, plastic and paper. Only CO2 emissions are measured; methane and other greenhouse gases are not accounted for. Also not tallied are the emissions produced by the production and distribution of the food and products (including vehicles) we buy and consume. The same goes for entertainment.

At least in the areas measured by the calculator, our family reduced its CO2 emissions by about 14 percent from the previous year. That number is a bit on the soft side, however, because I had to estimate the miles driven that first year (sloppy record keeping), and because the calculator I used the first time measured slightly different things. More than likely, our actual reductions were in the 5-10 percent range.

Even though the EPA says our 25,278 pounds of CO2 (12,639 per person) in the 12-month period was less than the national average (41,500 pounds for a two-person household), we still pumped out about 15 percent more carbon than your average European.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

I had hoped to reduce our CO2 output even further this past year, although I knew any improvements would be more modest because I hadn’t taken any conspicuously drastic measures. I didn’t buy a hybrid car, didn’t install solar panels on my roof. It’s not that I didn’t want to do those things (and more), but I’ve got a modest income, a daughter in college and a son not far behind her.

When I ran the numbers, though, I found that we had actually taken a small step backward. The carbon we spewed from our car and home increased by almost 2 percent. We drove more miles – 17 to 18 percent more than the national average (I have a job that requires me to drive a lot). We flew less, but for the last two years we’ve purchased carbon offsets for those emissions from Native Energy and from one of the airlines we flew with (click here for a great overview of carbon offsets, their costs, and suggestions for choosing an offset provider). We used less natural gas but more electricity, probably because we ran the air conditioner more often this past summer (it was much warmer this year).

I suppose I didn’t have to count the miles I drove for work but I thought it best to be conservative. I could, after all, try to find a job that doesn’t require so much time behind the wheel.

It’s not exact science, this carbon footprint calculating. At best, online calculators like the one the EPA offers give you a rough idea of your transportation and household energy emissions, and a way to measure progress (or regress) in those areas from year to year. Greenhouse gas emissions from food and other activities in our lives probably are not counted because such emissions depend on so many variables. Unlike your car, a head of lettuce doesn’t come with a sticker telling you how much fossil energy it uses (or took to get grown and delivered to your table). Even if it did, how and where a particular product was grown or manufactured, (organic vs. non-organic, local vs. shipped from overseas, etc, etc.) can vary greatly. How much carbon was given off in the making and distribution of that movie I rented last week?

What would give great satisfaction to folks like me, folks my friend Linda sympathetically calls badge earners (she’s one, too), is a calculator that took into account the positive impact of all our activities, especially our political actions.

Knowing that such a calculator would probably never exist, but wanting something to show for all my efforts, a little over two years ago I started keeping what I then called a global cooling journal. I wrote down when I replaced incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, when I scrapped my old gas lawnmower and bought a battery-powered model, and when I started composting again. But I also made note of when I called or wrote a legislator, when I attended a rally, when I had a conversation that touched on climate change with a coworker, when I shared a book on global warming with a friend… you get the idea.

Although values were not attached to these political activities — after all, how can you measure the effect a single letter to a legislator may have on the atmosphere — at least I had a record of what I’d done. I could look back on it years from now and feel a little less guilty about all the global warming I’ve been responsible for throughout my life.

But I also keep the journal to prove to my children and grandchildren someday that at least I attempted to right some of my wrongs. I keep it to give them an example to follow in their own lives. I  keep the journal because my financial situation does not allow me to make the lifestyle changes I would to make, the kind of changes I believe would make my carbon (and methane and nitrous oxide and haloflourocarbon) footprints look more like the tiny imprints on my children’s hospital birth records, instead of the dinosaur tracks they almost literally are. At least if my granddaughter ever asks me someday why I didn’t live in  a LEED-certified home or why I didn’t trade in my Corolla for a Prius, I can plop my thick journal on the table in front of her and say, “I did what I could, kiddo.”

I no longer call that chronicle my global cooling journal. I now call it my climate crisis journal, because I’ve come to understand since starting it that, short of a large asteroid collision or (God forbid) nuclear war, the planet is not going to be cooled in my lifetime, not even in my great-great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. The best we can do, the science tells us, is slow the rate at which it warms. But I digress.

It was only a few months after I started my journal that I read Bill McKibben’s piece for Orion Magazine, “Multiplication Saves the Day.” The article helped me  understand that all those “little” things I was doing and could not measure were not so little after all. They were, in fact, multipliers. We could reduce our personal use of fossil fuel energy to zero, McKibben was arguing, and still not come close to making the impact our political actions  had (assuming we were politically active).

Psychologically, many of us tend to assign greater significance to things we can easily measure. Hence, buying and erecting a windmill in my yard that cuts my electric bill to a small fraction of what it used to be seems to be of much greater benefit to the environment than, say, cornering my county board rep after a meeting to tell him our county needs a climate action plan. Of course it’s possible that it is of much greater significance.

These days we also often elevate technological fixes over political solutions.

But what if John Muir had stuck to tinkering with mechanical contraptions, as was his wont as a young man in Wisconsin, instead of travelling the continent rhapsodizing about Yosemite, Glacier Bay and other natural wonders? Or badgering leaders like Teddy Roosevelt to protect such jewels? If Muir hadn’t founded the Sierra Club, he might very well have poured his energies into inventing products to help people conserve water or build safer campfires. But I doubt we’d have a National Park system, at least not one as extensive and well-preserved as the one we are blessed with today. It’s doubtful we’d have an Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, either.

History is full of examples proving that Margaret Mead’s dictum about the things a small group of committed people can accomplish is more than just the over-roasted chestnut of a long-dead anthropologist.

As McKibben reminded readers, probably fewer than 1 percent of Americans joined the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, it was enough to get schools desegregated and the Voting Rights Act passed.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

OK, you may say, but that happened in a democratic nation, before the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, before the World Trade Organization, before threatening a filibuster became de rigueur in the U.S. Senate. How could we possibly do something like that today? Besides, global warming is just that: global. Our country alone can’t fix it.

Gandhi’s nonviolent followers – the people who actually marched and protested and boycotted and disobeyed so civilly – added up to a sliver of the overall population of India, but they accomplished the unimaginable: they got the British Empire to hand their country back to them. The list of similar examples is longer than most history books acknowledge, and includes Poland, South Africa, East Germany, the Philippines, Argentina and Serbia.

For a host of good reasons, we all should be doing the things that result in improvements we can measure. Calculating our carbon footprint as best we can raises our awareness of our own energy use. It sets a good example. It lends integrity to our political action. It’s also very satisfying, because we can measure those things and compare our numbers to averages and other people’s numbers. But let’s not fool ourselves about which actions do more good. Reducing the amount of fossil-fuel energy we use in our homes and vehicles, as McKibben writes, won’t be sufficient to ward off climate catastrophe in our lifetimes, even if every single one of us took these actions. The math just doesn’t add up. Teach a man to change a light bulb and you brighten his home and shrink his carbon footprint. Teach a man to change a dim bulb in Congress and you brighten the future of the whole world. Anyway, “carbon footprint” is such a gentle euphemism, as if the impressions we make are little more than tracks in the sand, something the waves of time can easily erase. A more accurate metaphor would be “carbon wound.”

Digression number two: In my more cynical moments, I have wondered whether many of the corporations that have been urging us to “go green” haven’t been doing so mainly to:

  1. keep our attention and energy focused on our own households so that our enormous political power is not unleashed on them
  2. keep our attention off those corporations’ own environmental misdeeds

I would feel fantastic if I was somehow able to get all 3,123 residents of the village of Sauk City, where I live, to slash their carbon footprints by a third through driving less and making their homes more energy efficient. Our utility might even give me a badge or plaque for that. But I’d much rather convince one-tenth of one percent of my neighbors to hound their state representatives and senators on a weekly basis to enact legislation that increased Wisconsin’s renewable energy standard (RES) to 50 percent by 2020. (Sound ridiculous? San Francisco’s mayor thinks his city can power itself with 100 percent renewable power by 2020.)

The truth is I’ll probably never know how many people in my town or state I’ve persuaded to get involved (or more involved) politically in the struggle to slow global warming. It’s nearly impossible to know the full impact of one’s political actions until one finds oneself living in a fundamentally different country. There’s no meter on the side of your house that will slow down or spin backward if you contact a certain number of legislators, and you can’t plug the number of emails you sent to them last year into an online calculator and have it spit out a score or “footprint.” If your writing or oral arguments convince people to vote differently, they generally don’t let you know it. Even if a good bill gets passed, you can’t exclaim, even to yourself, “Look what I did!” because no one does those kinds of things on their own (besides, in the Midwest we try not to call too much attention to ourselves). It takes the work of thousands, sometimes millions of people, many of them anonymous, to get legislation enacted into law. In short, there are no badges for all these things.

But it’s not really about the badges anyway. It’s about the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of world we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to live in. It’s about doing what’s right by them, by each other and by the beautiful planet we all share.

In the same way that we can’t quantify many of the ways our lives spew carbon into the atmosphere, we can’t quantify the effect of actions we take to change the political climate. But haven’t the best things in life always been difficult to measure? Love, for instance. Hope. Joy.

Happy holidays. Stay cool.



  1. Rick, I really admire you for your political activism in defense of the planet. I can’t come close–not even a tenth of the way there. The things you do on a weekly basis are the kinds of things that stress me and overwhelm me immediately. Thank goodness you and others like you are out there!

  2. It is hard to measure your impact, and really, you don’t need to. It does “feel good” to be able to measure our personal changes, but one thing I’ve learned from your example is a way to keep the pressure on. I don’t come close to your activism, either, but like Meg, I’m grateful that you do what you do, and also that you are sharing your journey with us. It kind of makes changes I’m making to my house feel small, but still important, but it also reminds me to make the phone call, too. Even though that’s much harder. Maybe that’s what it is. It’s much harder to call an elected official and have the conversation. We can’t farm that work out, we have to actually do it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Please remind us who and how to contact. This would be a great new years resolution for us all.

  4. A great place to start is with your community leaders: city alders, village/town board members, county board reps. Visit your municipality or county’s Web site to get their contact information. Next call or write your state reps. Click here to find out who your state assemblypersons and senators are. After that you could drop a line to your congressional representatives. This site sponsored by the League of Women Voters can tell you who they are and what their contact information is. Finally, why not call or write the president? You can post a comment through the White House website.