Footprint vs handprint: Engaging with global warming

First posted in the Chronicle Journal Sunday, May 15, 2016

The world’s best scientists, across a broad range of disciplines, have advised us that we humans are responsible for a spike in global temperatures not seen in hundreds of thousands of years.
They state that digging up and burning, in a couple of hundred years, solar energy stored as coal, gas and oil over hundreds of millions of years as the reason.

They have equated the addition of resulting greenhouse gases (GHGs), mainly carbon dioxide, to the detonation of 400,000 atomic bombs daily, 365 days a year.
And so they have asked us to reduce our “carbon footprint,” as ice-core samples have established a direct link between carbon in the atmosphere and global warming.

Gregory Norris, co-founder of Sustainability and Health Initiative for Net-Positive Enterprise (SHINE) argues that the focus on a carbon footprint is a limiting concept.
Better to think of our footprint in general, as the goods and services we rely on include such other impacts as water usage, destruction of habitat, air, water and soil pollution, consumption of non-renewable resources, and not just carbon output.
We call the sum of these negative impacts from production processes and their vast supply chain our “footprint.”
But he also cites a problem with a “footprint” approach to engaging people in the fight to limit climate change. Footprinting is all a bad-news story, as it records all the ways we stomp all over Mother Nature. After all, we do need the earth’s resources to survive, and that image is demoralizing, and likely to have us tune out.
He suggests that although we do need to beware of our footprints, a more psychologically engaging approach is to focus on our ”handprint.” That is all the ways we are actively measuring and acting to reduce our footprints, hence becoming more “net-positive.”
Consider potable water. We all must drink to live. But we can become more net-positive by reducing consumption and/or contamination, by catching rainwater, or by reducing our consumption of “virtual” water by eating less meat, to cite a few examples. (Every kilo of beef takes 14,000 litres of water to grow and process, and produces six times as many GHG emissions as a kilo of chicken. A recent United Nations report attributes a whopping 18 per cent of global GHGs to raising livestock.)
Our own city’s support of 11 Earthcare initiatives reflects a commitment to community handprinting which promises to reduce our collective footprint.
Is the distinction between handprints and footprints just semantics? Not according to Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Ecological Intelligence:
“Handprints, the sum total of all the positive changes we make that lower our footprint. That’s something we can feel good about, and are more likely to engage in.”
Is individual handprinting enough?
The science community (NASA , IPCC, IEA) offers an emphatic no! All cite the immediacy of the threat of cataclysmic climate events due to the carbonization of our air and oceans if we don’t leave 80 per cent of our known fossil reserves in the ground.
That takes political will, government legislation and a change in global mindset of those in control of economies which would methodically phase out the use of fossil fuels in the next few decades.
There is a myriad of ways we can re-balance our lives to make our personal handprints more net-positive, and feel good about it.
Meanwhile we can keep the pressure on governments to magnify our efforts by taking care of the broader strokes; incentivize the transition to a greener economy by putting a price on carbon, building mass transit, and offering incentives for home retrofits and electric cars.
In wrestling a living from the earth that nourishes us in a sustainable way, we need to use a hands-on, tag-team approach to what has become a global priority, reducing our individual and collective footprints.
Scott Harris
Thunder Bay