My wife recently calculated our carbon footprint for a project at the school where she teaches. Just how much CO2 are we contributing to global warming? I was smugly confident that our footprint would be tiny compared to others. We are seriously green, after all, trying to live a simple rural life. We heat with sun and wood, pay a little extra for wind-powered electricity, drive fuel-efficient cars and don’t take too many plane trips; we grow a small vegetable garden, eat local meat and produce, compost and recycle everything possible and buy a lot of used stuff. So we’ve got to be far below the national average. No sweat.
We were looking good as she plugged in the numbers
– well below average on our household energy use, consumer
habits are conservative. But then she got to driving. Suddenly our
footprint looked like Sasquatch and bumped our cumulative score up
higher than the national average.
Like many Westerners,
we live in the boonies with nice views, open space and recreational
opportunities all around us, but we have to drive ridiculous
distances to go anywhere else. It’s two miles just to the
pavement, then another eight or ten to get to the nearest grocery
store, my son’s school or the office of the conservation
organization I work for. Even the local farmers market is a solid
12 miles away.
We are also dangerously addicted to long
road trip vacations. Like many people I know, we love to travel and
enjoy the wild countryside. One summer we passed through every
Western state and two Canadian provinces in a month.
It’s not surprising that Westerners drive more than the rest
of the country. The national average per driver is 14,425 miles a
year, while those of us living in the 11 states covered by this
newspaper drive 15,238 miles. My home state of New Mexico is one of
the worst offenders, with 18,369 miles per year – the fourth
highest figure for all 50 states.
It comes with the
territory of wide open spaces and long distances between cities, as
well as the free-wheeling, independent nature of Western culture
– we love the open road. But if you’re serious about
reducing your footprint, it’s also part of a questionable
trade off for the bucolic rural life.
A lot of us harbor
the illusion of living an environmentally-conscious life out on the
land. Between the old land-based community and more recent
back-to-the-earth immigrants around here, many neighbors are trying
to sustain local traditions of farming and keeping some livestock,
cutting their own firewood, buying local and living off the grid as
much as possible. But we turn a blind eye to how much we drive.
Everyday I pass friends and neighbors zooming to and from work,
getting our kids to school and soccer practice, running important
errands, picking up our weekly CSA produce or raw milk from the
farmer up the road. And don’t forget all those meetings about
pressing conservation issues.
My daughter lives in the
steel and concrete of New York City, where thousands of people live
on the number of acres where we have three. She is about as far as
you can get from living on the land, yet her carbon footprint is
tiny – a lot closer to what we all need to reach in order to
make a difference. The average annual U.S. carbon footprint is 20.4
tons per person, and driving is about a third of that. My
family’s total footprint with our embarrassing driving habits
comes to 24.25 tons. Of course this country provides a very poor
yardstick for measuring global resource use. The average worldwide
footprint is four tons. According to one website, we need to reach
two tons per person to have any effect on global warming.
The question, then, is what are we willing to give up? Jared
Diamond recently wrote about the economic importance of the number
32. That’s the number that describes the difference in
consumption and resource use between developed nations and the rest
of the world – that is, we use 32 times as much as everyone
else. Part of his point was that it is simply impossible for
everyone in the world to enjoy the same quality of life as us. If
we want to create a genuinely fair and sustainable world some of us
have to learn to do without. But does that mean that I have to
reduce my driving to less than 1/32 of what I drive now?
I love those long road trips, weekend warrior camping and
backpacking and zipping into town for a quick errand or when we
need a movie or meal fix. Even as we’re facing the worst
environmental consequence of our age, I’ll bet most of us in
the driving-addicted West won’t give up our vehicles until
they pry the steering wheel from our cold, dead fingers.
The old Subaru finally died at 313,000 miles, despite our best
efforts to keep it going. We can’t afford a hybrid, but hope
we can find something that gets better gas mileage. Maybe a horse
and buggy. Or maybe I’ll just quit my job as a professional
conservationist and stay home.
spends most of his time driving around his native northern New
Mexico working on land conservation