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Are You Big Foot?

Most Americans—even those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists—use far more than their share of the planet.

Take this quiz to check the size of your "ecological footprint."

By Kim Todd

The first few blocks of pavement are steep enough that apartments look like they’d slide off their foundations with the slightest nudge and drivers reach for the emergency brake at each stop sign. Trudging up the hill with a book-laden backpack is a strain, but the payoff at the top is the view east to San Francisco Bay. It’s a flat plane of blue today, barely brighter than the gray sky over the industrial cranes at water’s edge.

Sweat pricks at the back of my neck and my muscles ache, but I’m not trying to drop a dress size or strengthen my calves on this urban hike. I’m reducing my ecological footprint.

The Ecological Footprint Quiz, designed by the Oakland-based group Redefining Progress, shows individuals how large a share of the earth’s resources they absorb. Questions on gas mileage, house size, and dining habits pinpoint consumption patterns. Driving long distances requires miles of roads and land devoted to energy production. Living in a large house means developing ground for a foundation and yard. Eating meat translates into the need for pastures where cattle can graze. Quiz results are computed in the number of productive acres—fishing grounds, forests, or agricultural fields—needed to maintain a given lifestyle. Compared with residents of other countries, U.S. citizens require far more than their share of land—an average of 24 acres per person. This, on a planet that provides 4.5 productive acres for every individual. Canadians use 17 acres; Italians, 9; Pakistanis, 2.

The quiz is meant to be sobering. "We want people to get a sense of how far past our planet’s capacity we’re living," says Michel Gelobter, the executive director of Redefining Progress. More than 150,000 people have taken the quiz since Earth Day last year.

Curious about my own impact, I sat down to take the test. As I scanned the page, the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem "Wild Geese" came to mind. "You do not have to be good," she writes. My shoulders relaxed. Such comforting words when guilt creeps in about the paper plates tossed out at the last party and the bag of pink Styrofoam peanuts that sat in my kitchen for months waiting to be reused until I finally threw them away. But Mary, be real. I do have to be good. Otherwise, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

She continues:

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

If only that were true. The quiz looks like a tax form. In a way it is, tallying up the excesses and economies of the past year, all my environmental virtues and flaws. Clumped into sections covering food, shelter, and mobility, the questions promise rigorous accounting of my weight on the world. A small glimmer of hope flickered, though. I’m a recycling, composting, non-red-meat eater who doesn’t drive much. How bad could it be?

Here’s how judgment day went:

Food. Red meat is resource-intensive, so that should help. Well, apparently not that much, as I usually eat chicken or fish once a day. Since I live in agriculture-rich California, it’s easy to buy good vegetables that haven’t traveled far, but even claiming that they make up 25 percent of my diet is a stretch. I’m far too fond of burritos and potato chips. Total acres needed to keep me nourished: 5.5

Shelter. I don’t have a lot of control over this one. I’m a renter, so I can’t install solar panels or buy an energy-efficient refrigerator. An apartment takes up less space than a house, but it’s a roomy unit for just two. Not that great, but about what I expected. Total acres for housing: 4.8

Mobility. Bring it on. I take the bus or the train almost everywhere and hardly ever drive, except for the weekends. When I do drive, my car gets decent mileage. I’m practically an angel. Wait, I can’t believe I’m getting dinged a sixth of an acre for taking the subway rather than walking. And airplane trips. I hadn’t even thought to count those. My transportation footprint is disappointingly high. Total acres: 3.4

Run through the accounting blender, my grand total was 21. All that effort and I’m just slightly better than average for an American. If everyone in the world lived as I do, we’d need four and a half additional planets.

Many of the things I worried about most—whether to take paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, if the windows on envelopes are recyclable or should be torn out—didn’t even factor into the calculations. The footprint focuses on the decisions with the biggest impact, not necessarily those looming largest in the popular imagination. "A recycled can is about 80 percent more efficient than a nonrecycled can, but compared to all the other energy use in your life, the can doesn’t make that much difference," says Gelobter. In the quiz, an avid recycler gets only a slight acreage reduction for all that aluminum and glass, while a vegan who grows her own food, never travels by plane or car, and lives in a 500-square-foot green-design home with her sweetheart enjoys a laudable ecological footprint of 3.

This same discrepancy between actions perceived as important and those that really matter spurred Michael Brower and Warren Leon to write The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, a book that aims to put green decision-making in perspective. "Everyone felt a little bad if they didn’t recycle, but they saw nothing wrong with having three cars," Brower says.

After the quiz, I resolved to lose a shoe size or two, but how? Plane trips are my biggest environmental crime—I spent at least 50 hours flying last year—but I can’t skip visiting my sister and her new baby. The apartment’s going to stay the same size for the time being. The months I spent as a vegetarian were the hungriest I’ve ever been. Vegan? Forget it.

Luckily, the quiz lets you bargain. Driving in the city is a recipe for frustration and the train is packed in the mornings—I can walk the three miles to work more often with little sacrifice. And maybe I’ll pick up some compact fluorescent bulbs on the way. Making sure at least 50 percent of my food is locally grown and unprocessed shouldn’t be too difficult. With all that though, I save only three-fourths of an acre. It’s far from sustainable.

But there are other ways to work toward a healthy planet. "Choices people make are very important, but there are also institutions that dictate the kind of house we live in, how far we drive to work, how far our food has to travel to get to us," says Gelobter. City and regional governments choose whether to revitalize their downtowns or sprawl into the countryside, whether to fund public transportation or more roads. Car manufacturers decide which models to put on the market. Demanding good laws and technological advances can be as important as weatherizing the house. "We want people to take action both at the individual level and collectively," he adds. In this light, I add up my job as an environmental writer, include weekends spent as a volunteer harbor-seal monitor, and throw in the letter I wrote my senator last week. I feel a little better.

Still, my individual footprint needs reducing; three-fourths of an acre is a nice piece of land, and someone’s going to need it. As I pull on my sneakers, I remember that when I first moved to San Francisco I walked because I wanted to see how the topography played out, how one neighborhood connected to the next. I walked because I loved it; then I lapsed into hopping the train to save 15 minutes.

Sloping downward now, the street skirts the park where the professional dog walker exercises different pets each morning. Today, he pulls the leashes of a Border collie and a yellow Lab, both overweight and panting hard. The sidewalk curves above the elementary school, letting passersby take inventory of the red kickballs on the top of the bungalow (three). The crossing guard who greets everyone with a smile and reaps his reward in cupcakes saved from classroom birthday parties has already left the corner. The owners of the vegetable market are out, though, hanging sacks of oranges in the tree outside their front door. The fruit looks festive next to the holiday lights.

On Market Street with its smells of sweet-and-sour pork and exhaust, a man with his belongings in a shopping cart feeds half a slice of bread to the pigeons. Whole flocks circle above the Safeway, wings clattering. Traffic thickens and buses groan to life. As I near downtown, the clouds pull apart, letting the sun shine on tourists, shopping teenagers, men and women in suits bound for the financial district. Gossip and business deals in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi drift down every block.

Footsore but exhilarated, I enter the office building, reach my desk, and throw down my backpack.

I don’t feel virtuous, but I feel good.

Kim Todd is an environmental writer and author of Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America, which won the 2002 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award.

How to Lose a Shoe Size

Is your ecological footprint a tad ungainly? Does your lifestyle require more acres of the earth’s surface than seems fair? Even small efforts—biking to school or eating pasta instead of a hamburger—can make a difference if you do them regularly. But individual action, even by the most noble, probably isn’t going to get the U.S. average down to the sustainable 4.5 acres per person. Many people live in suburbs with no sidewalks or in cities without access to locally grown food. Broader efforts to cut back sprawl and promote energy conservation are just as important as personal economies.

Take Action To work toward a sustainable future, go to the Sierra Club’s Web site at One section offers a list of ways to shrink your ecological footprint. Tell us what changes you’re going to make, and we’ll add your contribution to a grand tally of acres saved. A second section invites you to become a member of the Sierra Club’s activist network. It’s one good way for busy people to work for changes that will reduce everyone’s footprint. —K.T.

Now, for the good news…

Don’t sweat the small stuff, say Michael Brower and Warren Leon, authors of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Here’s a list of five things you shouldn’t lose sleep over.

Aerosol in your bathroom
Spritzing yourself with canned hairspray or deodorant used to top the list of perceived environmental sins. In fact, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as a propellant were so damaging to the ozone layer, contributing to a gaping hole over Antarctica, that in 1978 the U.S. government banned their use in aerosol cans. Now the hole appears to be shrinking, according to recent reports by NASA.

Phosphates in your laundry detergent
For a long time, laundry detergent cleaned clothes but dirtied streams by pouring phosphates into them. These water-softening minerals act as fertilizer, creating algae blooms that can kill fish. By 1993, though, major brands of laundry detergent phased out the use of phosphates.

Paper or plastic in your shopping cart
It once seemed the defining moral question of our age: "Paper or plastic?" Do you want the tree-based, easily recyclable paper bags that nonetheless are bulky and often require double-bagging? Would you prefer the light plastic bags that are made from petroleum products and tend to end up in the dumpster? Neither is the clear winner. Reusing either kind or toting a cloth sack is the best strategy. What you put in the bag matters most.

Cloth or disposable diapers on your baby
At first, cloth versus disposables seems like a no-brainer. Who wants to pile disposable diapers in the landfill when you could be using the same few diapers over and over? But all that washing takes a lot of energy and water, whether done at home or through a diaper service. A heap of studies funded both by cloth-diaper services and disposable-diaper manufacturers have produced no definitive answer about which is better for the environment. It’s a wash.

Windows in your envelopes
Do you feel obliged to tear out plastic windows in envelopes before recycling them? You can take a break and nurse your paper cuts. Most centers now accept the plastic windows in their "mixed paper" stream, shucking them off during the recycling process and turning them into fuel. Of course, if your recycler specifies "no plastic windows," keep tearing. —K.T.

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