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March 15, 2015

What is Your Ecological Footprint?

In this Living Room Dialogue, we explored the idea of the ecological footprint and took a simple quiz to find out what features of our way of living contribute to our personal footprints. The Global Footprint Network* describes the footprint in this way:

"Human activities consume resources and produce waste. As our populations grow and global consumption increases, it is essential that we measure nature's capacity to meet these demands on our planet. The Ecological Footprint has emerged as one of the world's leading measures of human demand on nature. It allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American, we would need 5 planets. Ecological Footprint Accounting thus addresses whether the planet is large enough to keep up with the demands of humanity…..

"By measuring the Footprint of a population—an individual, city, business, nation, or all of humanity—we can assess our pressure on the planet, which helps us manage our ecological assets more wisely and take personal and collective action in support of a world where humanity lives within the Earth's bounds.

"Conceived in 1990 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, the Ecological Footprint launched the broader Footprint movement, including the carbon Footprint, and is now widely used by scientists, businesses, governments, individuals and institutions working to monitor ecological resource use and advance sustainable development." Calculating one's ecological footprint can be quite complicated, but we chose a simple quiz that would give us the basic idea without a lot of detail. We then discussed the results we obtained. If you would like to take the quiz yourself and figure your footprint score, you can find it at 3-15 Personal Ecological Footprint quiz.doc.

Water Use

The first category on the quiz was about water use. We were asked: Did we take long showers? How often? Do we always flush the toilet? Or sometimes? Do we let the water run when we brush our teeth? Are there water-saving toilets and showerheads in our homes?

Some comments were: Nowadays most Americans think they have to shower every day. (Nobody in the group revealed that they did less than that.) Parents think children have to have baths every day. This has not always been the case.

People who don't bathe every day smell different from those who do.

A visitor from California where people must conserve water because of the recent drought described her process in the shower as turning on the water to get wet, then turning it off while she soaped up. She then turned the water back on to rinse off.

One person said that because of a back ache she needed to take a long, hot shower in the morning in order to get her body moving.

One participant said she was trying to figure out how to get out of the habit of washing her dishes under running water. Many suggestions were made as to how to do this: For example, use two basins – soap up the dishes in a little water in one basin, rinse in the other. Another suggestion was to reduce water use by washing dishes only once a day.

When people pay their own water bills they are more conscious of how much they use. Most people in the group lived in buildings where the water charge was not separated from the rest of the rent or carrying charge.


In this category we were asked how often we eat meat and whether we seek out organic and/or locally grown food. Did we compost our fruit/vegetable peelings, etc.? How much processed food do we eat? How much of our food is packaged? How much do we waste?

Some comments were: This was my highest number. "Why are we even asked about what we eat?" one participant asked. Another participant replied that the way our food is grown is one of the main drivers of climate change. For one thing a lot of petroleum is used in running farm equipment, in packaging, in transporting the food all over the country and other ways. You could almost say we eat oil. Meat-eating among group participants ranged from those who ate no meat through those who eat it twice a week, to those who have it every day. A number of people in the group save their kitchen scraps for composting, some of whom started doing it as a result of discussions in previous Living Room Dialogues. You could get points taken off your footprint score for composting.

At least one member of the group makes a point of buying locally grown and organic food.


Questions here involved whether we travel mostly by foot, bicycle, public transit or automobile. People taking airplane flights added lots of points to their footprint.


Most of the people in the room were New Yorkers who relied on walking or public transit to get around. Our California guest has a car but still find it more convenient to ride a bus much of the time. Most people did not fly more then once a year, although one person whose children live far away flew more often.


Everyone in the room lived in an apartment, coop or condo rather than a house and in only a few rooms. Because of this, we got to deduct points from our score. Fewer building materials were required to provide our smaller living space.


Here the quiz asked such questions as what temperature we kept our homes at in the cold months; whether we used air conditioners in the summer; whether we use a clothes dryer to dry our wash or whether we hang it up to air dry instead; whether we turn off the lights, computer and TV when not in use. You got to take points off your score if you have an energy efficient refrigerator or use compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs. You could also take points off if you used an electric fan to keep cool rather than an air-conditioner.


Several people said their air dry their laundry or dry sheets and towels in the dryer while air drying the rest.

One said he slept with the TV because soothed by the voices.

One person said she had thought it used more energy to turn her computer off and on than to leave it on. That was disputed by others in the group.

On person insisted that she could not work without an air-conditioner keeping her workplace cool.


Here the quiz asked if we buy new clothes every year, change our clothes every day and put them in the laundry. You could get points off if you mend and fix your clothing or wear hand-made or second-hand clothing, and if you bring the clothes you no longer wear to the thrift shop.

There did not seem to be any big spenders in this group. One person even finished with 20 points she could deduct from her overall score at the end.

One person commented that he had a full closet because of clothes he couldn't fit into any more but that he had hopes of using again one day.

No one in this group had high scores in this section and one person even got 20 points she could deduct from her overall score at the end.


Here we were asked how much garbage we generate; whether we re-cycle; re-use or repair items rather than throw them out; avoid disposable items as often as possible. It asked how many electronics are in our homes and how many of our typical activities depend on electronic devices. Comments Between re-cycling and composting food scraps we have very little garbage Most people in my building are careless about recycling. The porters spend a lot of time sorting out the re-cycling because the city gives us a summons if it is not done properly. If people knew how much this work was costing them, maybe they would be more careful. Conclusion Exercises like this can make us more aware of our actions and make us think about how we can alter them.


Exercises like this can make us more aware of our actions and make us think about how we can alter them.

Read the related Living Room Dialogue | Shared Responsibility for Decreasing Environmental Impact


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