Dear Umbra,

I have a couple of questions that relate to how I live and ask others to live. First, my guess is that many of your readers are above average in terms of income and education; who is the average American that we need ultimately to create a sustainable life for? Second, as we try to make our personal lives more sustainable, what is the ecological footprint we need to seek (i.e., square acres or miles or whatever) and what resources does that block contain for us to use in a sustainable way?

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Kit Robison
Columbus, Ohio

Dearest Kit,

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A while back I wrote about the ecological footprint, and I appreciate the opportunity to revisit the topic and retract my snarkiness.

The sole of a new machine.

Photo: iStockphoto.

First, as we contemplate your question, Grist readers are “above average” in terms of education, and many do well on the income front. I would argue, however, that demographic categories and the “average person” for whom a “sustainable life” needs to be designed are red herrings. People with fewer years of education don’t have inherently different needs from Ph.D.s. If people do have different needs, it’s because of their whole personhood. No one wants their sustainable life to be designed for them, and the only way sustainability can achieve its true promise is if it serves people’s self-identified needs. Otherwise, it will not be sustainable, it will be a fad.

Now, on to the ecological footprint. This concept was coined by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in 1993. They looked at how much of the planet is habitable and accessible, at natural resources, at consumption and waste, then devised a formula and came up with a number: each human is allotted 4.5 acres. (The typical American “uses” 24 acres.) Take some time to measure your own footprint, explore how to reduce it, and learn more about the resources our global acres contain.

Back in my last look at the footprint, I got all snarky about how it makes you feel bad. I have since been converted by none other than Mathis Wackernagel himself, a nice, smart fellow who got tired of flying around to make presentations (as he well knows, flying puts us over the top on the personal-footprint calculator) and made a film about his work to send instead. I saw this film, “The Ecological Footprint: Accounting for a Small Planet,” and it is a good (if oddly expensive) resource.

In the film, nice Mathis very reasonably and kindly explains that this tool is a friendly way to make plans for the future so we all can live happy lives. He and his cohorts intended the tool not for individuals, but for communities, states, and countries — I missed that point originally. Since our personal footprint includes shared burdens such as roads, it encourages us to solve problems as a team. To that end, the Global Footprint Network is working to standardize the footprint tools and expand their use worldwide until they become an indicator as familiar as GDP. With the footprint calculator, communities can measure how far they are from sustainability, and set meaningful, realistic goals.

I am now quite excited about the potential of the footprint to help extricate us from the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. As its proponents say, “The ecological footprint is not about how bad things are. It is about how they are — and what we can do about it.”