Why the Ecological Footprint Matters

Joelle Reyes | Contributing Writer

After the day is done or before the day begins, we step onto a cold white floor and turn a metallic knob fixed to a tiled wall. Warm water flows from above our heads, temporarily washing away the worries college life has given us. Showers offer a brief moment of solace in our tumultuous college lives, so they have become ritualistic. Yet as we enjoy this brief solitude, have we asked ourselves just how many gallons of water we use in the shower? SUNY Oneonta’s own ecological footprint survey,  as we reach “Green Dragon Week,” answers this question.

This college’s survey is based on Dr. William Rees and Dr. Mathis Wackernagel’s ecological footprint assessments (EFAs). In 1996, these two professors from the University of British Columbia sought to find out how much of Earth’s land area was needed to sustain a person’s lifestyle in terms of energy usage and food consumption. As they put it, ecological footprints were to assign “real areas of Earth’s surface dedicated to our consumption of food and wood products.” In essence, they wanted to find out how much land was needed to grow the average amount of food a person eats in one day.

Ecological footprints have become more intricate since then. Recent EF surveys are now able to assess the pressures of human activity on the planet. Some surveys estimate how many Earths we would need to have enough resources to sustain our current lifestyle. For SUNY Oneonta, our footprint survey is able to tell how much water and electricity we use, along with how much carbon dioxide and garbage we produce.

Why does it matter if the average student in Huntington Hall uses 364 gallons of water per week? Why should individual colleges have their own ecological footprint assessments? The answer involves our general knowledge of climate change, our resource consumption and waste production, and our unique position as college students.

In 2017, NASA reported that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activities. The general public does not share this consensus. The phenomenon of climate change denial evidently reveals the lack of education on the topic.

College EFAs provide the opportunity not only to assess one’s resource use, but also to gauge one’s perception of climate change and then give a concrete definition of climate change. An EF survey provides the perfect platform to establish the scientific concept of climate change without political biases. This survey allows climate science to represent itself.

People’s resource consumption and waste production also comes into play. Technology is able to measure how many gallons of water are used in each residence hall, but it is not able to determine why use varies between students nor how students feel about their resource use and waste. The comforts of the American lifestyle provide the illusion that resources are inconsequential. Most people never consider that the freshwater they need is only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water supply. People have difficulties realizing the impact of their ecological footprint or the benefits of becoming environmentally aware, and this reality is even harder to grapple with once people grasp it. College EFAs brings this consciousness to their respondents, providing a new way for people to evaluate their behaviors and gain knowledge about how to better take care of the environment they call home.

Even though the manifestations of a changing climate are becoming more apparent, there is still a chance to curb the impact humans have caused. Importantly, college students become aware of this opportunity for self-reflection and positive influence through the EFAs, as we are in the most optimal time to enact change. The knowledge we gain and the experiences we have at SUNY Oneonta are actively shaping the people we will become. In this formative time, Americans are becoming more open to new information and perceptions. Small changes will spell great benefits for the blue marble of a planet earthlings call home – and it is as simple as turning the shower knob off a few minutes early.

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