Measuring Our Footprint

Beginner

I no longer own a car, and though I use cars and trucks when I choose to, I prefer moving about by bicycle for short and medium distances, combining them with buses, trains, and planes for longer jaunts. The other day while on my bike on the ferry to my island home, someone remarked that my carbon footprint “must be pretty small.” I pleaded ignorance to the actual number, while predicting that based on the multiple airline trips I take each year for work and family, it might not be that low. And I added that I hold a certain skepticism about the carbon footprint measurement anyway.

I told my acquaintance that I’d hate to live in a low-carbon world with a lot of unhappy, angry, ignorant, or controlling people. I’d also not be too excited to live in a low-carbon world where I was disconnected from my far-flung family and friends, and my varied passions and interests, which range from Maine to Washington State to Costa Rica and beyond.

While Home Power is focused on renewable energy and sustainability, these are only one part of a life well lived. I want to enjoy communities full of love, laughter, music, culture, friendship, and innovation—and these are all values that are a bit harder to quantify than a carbon footprint.

Also, too often I think we focus on the benefits of whatever cause we are promoting without looking at its liabilities; or at the liabilities without quantifying the benefits. I remember watching a local “health and safety” bureaucracy hassle a couple for not following urban codes, when the couple lives more healthily, safely, and sustainably than the enforcement officers will ever hope to live. I wondered if anyone counted the environmental impact of the cars, buildings, and flood of paper that the agency generates. On the other side, a good friend and colleague regularly bemoans the fact that he must fly from Scotland to teach renewable energy for me in the northwestern United States, concerned about his carbon footprint. My point of view is that he improves the planet more by his instruction and inspiration than he’ll ever damage it with the jet fuel used.

For me, the bottom line is that we all have different goals and standards, and in my experience it works better if I choose mine and enthusiastically apply them, leading by example, with a minimum of finger-wagging. I’m for a larger happiness footprint (with thanks to the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, who coined the phrase “gross national happiness”). Renewable energy is a piece of that for me, and I find that living lower on the energy food chain not only “looks good on paper,” but leaves me feeling more connected to nature, people, and the communities I’m involved in.

A small carbon footprint and a happy, productive, and fun life aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s what Home Power is here to show—maybe it’s our main purpose. If we make conscious and smart choices about our energy sources and uses, we can have our happiness cake, and feel good about the energy that baked it, too.

—Ian Woofenden for the Home Power crew

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