Footprint Fumbling: Keeping Perspective on Carbon Footprint

I am writing this while in distress. I am on my way home from a conference in Las Vegas and am reflecting on the waste I just witnessed. Beyond superficial waste like fountains spraying eternally onto the sidewalk and rhododendrons in the desert, the waste on my mind is conference waste. With over 40,000 people in attendance at this particular conference, the waste produced for us all to fly there, for each of the 1,300 exhibitors to print brochures and offer novelty stress balls, for each of the attendees to have the daily conference newspaper, is staggering. And this is happening in multiple convention centers within Vegas—as well as San Diego, Orlando, and Chicago—on a weekly basis. As I look out the window at the unseasonably snow-deprived mountains west of Denver, I am certainly in distress.

So what to do? How can I change my behavior to counteract all this waste? The answer, to be honest, involves tough choices. I can walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to work on Monday, both of which I already do pretty regularly. But this Tuesday, when I go to work, I’ll…go to the airport and get on another plane. Playing with the tools on carbonfootprint.com, I learn that one round-trip flight to Chicago is the same CO2 production as 67 days of driving to work. Considering I have already taken five round-trip flights of similar duration in 2016, there are not enough work days in the year for me to ride my way out of this. The damage is already done. 

Never one to dwell on the past, I shall look ahead. I vow to always leave the house early enough to bike and become a Skype devotee. But what about the carbon footprint of Skype? And e-mail? And cat videos? I have 2,476 e-mails in my inbox from 2016, 1,053 sent e-mails, probably a quarter of which have attachments (confessional note: my filing system consists of inbox, deleted, and one archive folder called “Old” that I use to stay out of e-mail jail, so it’s pretty straightforward to count my e-mails). Using data from The Guardian, I have used 121 pounds of CO2. That’s fifteen days of driving to work. While only a fraction of a round-trip flight, I am surprised at the impact of my internet habits. Forget the “think about the Earth before printing this e-mail” disclaimer; just don’t send the e-mail at all. 

It is hard for me not to draw the conclusion that the only way to respond is to contract, to go local. If I work for a company with local reach, the e-mails, the conferences, and the air travel will dry up. That being said, I like my job. It is challenging, I genuinely enjoy my office-mates and the work that we’re doing. Based on the intersection of my skills and local jobs, I could likely find a new job within ten miles of my house if I take a demotion. All of this is reasonable and possible. However, it is in strong opposition to my desire to move upwards. I don’t like admitting this to myself, but it will take some work for me to realign CO2 reduction over career satisfaction. A tough choice.

Also weighing heavily on my brain is that I am only addressing one facet of my life: work. I live where I do because I love being outside. Skiing, my winter love, involves using huge amounts of energy to run lifts, reservoir capacity to make snow, and hundreds of cars sitting on I-70 for hours to get us to and fro. While I do have the gear to propel myself uphill, I can’t do that from my back door and definitely am not going to get in many runs. Triathlon, my summer love, is no better. While I can train either out my back door or within a short bike ride to the pool, most races require a car trip. Hundreds of paper cups on the run course and gel packets are used. Gas is burned getting racers to the start and monitoring the bike course. Do I give up or scale back on these activities to reduce my footprint? Does it matter if everyone else is still participating?

It is easy to see the predicaments I face as either shallow or self-generated. However, I feel there has to be some impact that each of us can make that is somewhere between joining GreenPeace to vandalize an oil tanker, and resigning myself to the situation by kicking the can to the next generation. I don’t know where that balance lies, but I’ll be running errands on my bike trying to figure it out. 

The Cost of Doing Business

The class that had the greatest impact on me during graduate school was actually an out-of-major elective in the chemical engineering department and was—interestingly—co-listed with the business school. The course introduced the concepts of life cycle analysis of a product and how the data resulting from that analysis affects business decisions. At the time, I was a 23-year old design engineer at Ford Motor Company, while many of my peers were full-time students who stayed in school after graduating rather than working in between.

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