ecological footprint analysis: Calculations, explanations, and remedies.

The ecological footprint is a calculation of how much a particular individual's lifestyle exerts a toll upon the planet. It calculates how many nonrenewable resources the individual uses, how an individual's food and energy consumption impacts the planet, and puts the unnaturalness of modern life into context by stating how many 'earths' an individual requires to sustain his or her lifestyle -- in other words, it shows if everyone lived like the individual with a particular kind of footprint on the earth, how many earths this would require. Ecological footprint analysis can also be used to analyze a household, a nation, or an industry.

On a basic level, simply the process of doing an ecological footprint analysis can be a positive wake-up call for the individual. In some ways, doing this analysis did not 'feel' very fair -- there is only so much one can avoid traveling by car, for example, depending on where you live. Some individuals may have access to more local produce and food. Other individuals may have low utility and energy bills and little trash because they spend most of their day away from home, but still tax the planet because of their use of energy and disposal of waste at work, school, or leisure-time activities. But the unsustainable nature of modern life and the need for many 'earths' is an important concept to grasp, given that more and more members of the developing world are driving, eating and consuming like members of the developed world.

Some critical aspects of environmental usage were left out that we considered important. For example, water waste was not calculated, nor was the use of potentially hazardous toxins -- whether we used organic foods or foods grown with pesticides. Whether we recycle or not was not calculated. Also, the fact that we did not have children should have lessened our ecological footprint. The more children a couple has ensures couple is generating more potential consumers for the future. The tool really should have been called calculate a rough estimate of your ecological footprint rather than all of it.

I was surprised by the divergence in our results, given that we are all within the same age range and have similar lifestyles. My footprint was mainly enlarged by what I ate, as was Zulemia's while Kelsey's was dominated by goods and services. However, we all roughly required the same number of planets to sustain our current lifestyles. The differences had to do with how much we rode in cars, used public transportation, and drove our cars. Kelsey did not drive her car as much as Zulemia or me. However, she tended to purchase more goods and services that generated trash and waste. I am not much of a 'shopper' but I eat more environmentally damaging foodstuffs, and eat more food grown far away from local sources that generates trash than either Kelsey or Zuleima. This is partially due to my lifestyle, gender, and greater caloric needs.

Given the impact food choices had on my ecological footprint, I decided to do more research into reducing the impact of this aspect of my lifestyle choices. I found that "if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20% it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan -- a Camry, say -- to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days" (Bittman 2008).

Meat-based agriculture contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation's rivers and streams, and is a far more ecologically draining way to…