carbon cycleStart where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

~ Arthur Ashe

A few years ago I became intrigued by the concept of ‘carbon footprint’, the sum of all the greenhouse gases — like carbon dioxide — emitted by someone’s actions. Early on, the size of your footprint was represented by the amount of driving you did (gasoline used), electricity you used, the amount of meat you ate and some other factors. More recently, sophisticated calculators are available to help you understand your personal impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and by extension, climate change.

Subsequently, I saw mention of a concept of ‘water footprint’ that assesses someone’s use of water. This one is more complicated in my opinion, since water that we use isn’t created or destroyed but just relocated. Whenever I’ve studied water conservation, I became conscious about what water we are assessing.

Our water systems corral water for our use through diversions or wells, and send it to our homes through a distribution system of pumps, pipes and tanks. Most of the time we are concerned with the water that we ‘waste’ by sending it down the drain. We use low-flow faucets and water saving flushes on our toilets, but neither of those practices really uses up water; it just uses up treated water. And, even then, most of this water goes to sewers where it is collected, treated and then discharged for people downstream to use. (In Colorado, we used to say, “Flush twice; Kansas needs the water.”)

Water used for landscaping is usually treated water from our distribution system, unless someone has a well or ditch to draw from. We decry green lawns and other vegetation when water is scarce, but in fact that water isn’t wasted, it is just returned to the hydrologic cycle. Remember the schematic from elementary school? Water forms clouds in the atmosphere; it precipitates as rain or snow; then permeates into groundwater or runs off into streams, rivers, lakes and ultimately the ocean, where it evaporates to form more clouds.

Our ‘water footprint’ takes into account the water we use in our home, for our landscaping, and from the agriculture that provides our food. In addition, certain things we consume require water to produce, such as paper goods. For a while, white paper was a hot button for environmentalists, since paper mills used large amounts of bleach to create white office paper — much of which ended up in their discharges to streams and rivers. So, our ‘water footprint’ needs to account for all the water we indirectly cause to be used, as well as what we use directly.

In a similar way, we can evaluate our ‘ecological footprint’ — how much of the biological capacity of the planet is demanded by a given human activity or population. This demonstrates the reality of ecological scarcity and our role in it.

Each of these ‘footprint’ devices can be useful in understanding resource limitations and the impacts of our actions. But it is also important to see beyond the simplified results that the calculators provide. The world and our lives are far more complex than these ‘footprint’ measures show.

On the Navajo Reservation, it was common to see a pickup truck with a couple of 55-gallon drums in the bed pulled up to a watering point. Some of these dispensed gravity-fed water from springs higher up, or from windmills, and some required hand-pumping. The Navajo would position the hose over the drums, fill and cap them, then return home. Some communities were served by community water systems from wells or surface features, but anyone outside of those communities hauled their water.

If I used the water footprint calculator for that Navajo family, it would show a very positive score. These people used very little water and wasted nearly none. However, they also suffered from various ills created by poor sanitation, and their quality of life was impaired every day. Few of us would voluntarily adopt this lifestyle and forego running water, flush toilets, washing machines and all that modern life offers.

It is important to live wisely. We shouldn’t waste water or energy or send pollutants into the atmosphere or environment. We must make smart choices about how we use our limited resources — and conserve them whenever we can.

However, we need to consider the big picture as well as the little details. Life is full of trade-offs.

We may drive to work or ride mass transit because we can then live in a nicer or safer place than if we had to walk or bike. We use water to make our environment pleasant, and that improves our stress levels and quality of life, not to mention the benefits of proper sanitation. (Fifty-five square feet of turfgrass — a roughly seven-foot by eight-foot lawn —- provides enough oxygen for one person for one day.) We eat well to keep ourselves healthy and satisfied. (Iron is required for our health, and iron from red meat is easier to digest and absorb than tablets.)

The point is to try to stay on the positive side of the balance. I think of this as ‘karmic footprint.’ It relates to whether you bring positive or negative energy into the world. Those negative forces feel to me like hatred, fear, greed, lies, bigotry, ignorance, waste and others; where the positive ones are love, kindness, intelligence, fairness, truth, wisdom, etc. (Good and bad are recognized in most cultures – apparently, a basic human trait. Morality is an inherent trait; immorality needs to be learned.) Are things improved or degraded because of your actions? Have you made a difference for the better or the worse?

Everyone carries their own limitations, and the world is enormous. What ‘karmic footprint’ means to me is whether my being here in the world has been positive or not. This includes the physical, the spiritual and the emotional sides.

I suspect no one can tell with any certainty where they would score on a karmic calculator, if one ever existed. But maybe what matters is whether we tried or not.

Oh, and have a nice day!

Additional Information:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Carbon Footprint Calculator,
Grace Communications Foundation Water Footprint Calculator,

Earth Day Network Ecological Footprint Calculator,

Zachary S. Johnson, Tony Koski, Alison Stoven O’Connor, The Hidden Value of Landscapes: Implications for Drought Planning, Colorado State University, 2017

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