How to halve your ecological footprint


When it comes to sustainability measures there’s always been too much emphasis on trivial things. The cynical side of me says that it is the system trying to smokescreen the actual, big issues. I never understood why plastic shopping bags were considered such a huge deal when they are a very tiny percentage of the unnecessary and avoidable waste people create every day.

Compact fluorescent lights were another one. It’s true that CFLs are much more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs but people put them into houses that leak heat like a sieve and that are twice the size they need to be for comfort and well-being.

All the little things we do to be sustainable add up but I can’t help feeling this is like putting new deck chairs on the Titanic. For instance, people will get the bus to work when the weather is fine, which is great, and then undo it all by flying to a one hour business meeting in another city. People will buy second hand clothes and then vote for the party that wants to build more roads and not commit to the Kyoto Protocol. People will buy some organic carrots to go with their huge slab of beef steak.

Having said this, being sustainable is not an all or nothing thing either. It is actually possible to have a low ecological footprint and eat red meat and drive a car occasionally. It’s all to with finding what the elephant in your room is.

What’s the elephant in your room?

The 80/20 principle predicts that 80% (the elephant) of your ecological footprint comes from 20% of your lifestyle. If you can halve that 20% of your lifestyle you can decrease your footprint by 40% or more.

The only way to find out where your elephant is is to use an ecological footprint calculator. Ecological footprints are dominated by home/energy, transport, food and goods. Every individual and family is different but these six are often the main culprits:

  1. Too much stuff
  2. Private car use
  3. Travelling by plane
  4. Space heating
  5. Meat (especially red meat)
  6. Waste, including food waste

In theory, if you could halve all of these you could nearly halve your total footprint – at the least you will put a serious dent in it. I know from experience that if you halve the amount of stuff you buy and have you will hardly notice the difference. Halving car use might take a little organisation but it’s worth it. Halving the amount of meat you eat is not only good for the environment it is good for your health and your bank balance!

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  1. Phyllis Tichinin August 30, 2016 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Hi Michael, thanks for the info and inspiration packed website. As a long time environmental policy specialist and soils consultant, I’m heartened to see this initiative for NZ. Likewise, it was great to see Dr Rattan Lal ‘s quote on the ability of carbon sequestration in the soil to quickly reverse atmospheric carbon levels. I was surprised though by the emphasis you put on eating less red meat in your Well Being Diet section. My readings, my work with farmers and my observations on my own farm indicate to me that sensitive, taller grass grazing of ruminants on diverse, re-mineralised pastures is the fastest way to create soil humus and sequester carbon long term. It’s the cropping and grain production that tends to release carbon from the soil…. I would reverse your food/ environmental impact pyramids to reflect the costs of cropping vs grazing. If this is an animal welfare sensitivity issue, that’s a different discussion, still worth having. Please consider exploring this option for regenerative farming that reverses climate change. Happy to talk about the specifics here in NZ. thanks for your generous work in this arena. Phyllis Tichinin True Health Inc

    • Michael September 3, 2016 at 2:21 pm - Reply

      Hi Phyllis, thanks for your comments. The issue of meat production and consumption is complex and well…a can of worms. Sustainable production methods can obviously reduce the impact of meat production and help build carbon content in the soil. The point is that sustainable production of grains, fruit and vegetables still have a significantly smaller ecological footprint. We are lucky in New Zealand to have plenty of pasture land and plenty of rainfall (on average). In other countries the conditions are not as favourable and, calorie-for-calorie, it is much more sustainable to grow grains and vegetables. Moderating meat consumption is a very easy way for people to reduce their ecological footprint and probably improve their diets.

      • Phyllis Tichinin September 6, 2016 at 1:10 pm - Reply

        Hi Michael, thanks for your reply to my comment and I decline your assertion that grains and vegetables have a smaller energy footprint calorie by calorie than production of ruminant protein and fat. I suggest you explore the book “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith and Dr Alan Savoury and Dr Christine Jones work on carbon sequestration under tall grass/ extended round grazing with a more biological soil fertility approach. best regards, Phyllis

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