Aim Higher Than Zero: How Handprints Reframe Measuring Your Impact

My goal used to be zero. I wanted to reduce my footprint on the good green and blue planet to be zero, as if I weren’t here. Wouldn’t that be great? Unfortunately, this is an impossible goal through only eliminating your footprint. You can reduce waste you create, energy you expend, and water you use to a point, but you will always have the by-products of life. It’s impossible to hit zero. You start getting into icky territory, asking questions like, “why am I here? Would the world be better off without me in it?” This is the trope of the guilty liberal. The more that you sacrifice the more aware you are of the things you can’t sacrifice, the resources you use. I used to feel guilty constantly.

I’m not saying this is a wasted effort. When you first start taking stock of your life in an earth-conscious way there are plenty of low-hanging fruit. These are changes you can make that have a huge impact in reducing your footprint, but affect your time, money or space very little. It feels really good making these small changes. Some examples of low hanging fruit are:

  • Composting: you can eat the same foods, you just dispose of the waste differently
  • Drying clothes on a line rather than in a drier: it takes a little more time, but you’re directly saving money at the laundromat or in your energy bill
  • Recycling items collected in your curbside bin
  • Bringing your own bags and cup
  • Choosing products of higher quality rather than poorer when you need to replace something: you still get what you need, it will just last longer
  • Keeping your thermostat closer to the outside temperature: you can wear sweaters in the winter and nothing in the summer
  • Saving water when you shower by turning off the faucet when you don’t need it (i.e. soldier showers as they were called in my home growing up)

Next, you can start making bigger changes; changes that have more of an effect on your day-to-day life or wallet. These are changes like biking to work (obviously there are many personal benefits of exercising in this method, but it is more dangerous, takes more time and exposes you to more pollution depending on where you live), eating local and/or organic food when available (this will take more time and usually more money, especially if you live in a rural area or an area without lots of farming, but you will probably be eating healthier foods which should provide direct benefits to your personal health), and reducing excess waste when making purchases (some of this is pretty easy like choosing not to put produce in produce bags, but it can take a long time researching how much packaging different products contain and whether or not that packaging is recyclable in your county. Oddly enough, products with less packaging are often more expensive). These are changes that feel more like a sacrifice of time, money, or comfort, but don’t affect your standard of living that much. These changes also start to have less of a benefit on reducing your footprint.

Once you’ve incorporated these medium changes to your day-to-day life it starts getting much harder to make any more dents in your footprint. You start looking at things like turning off your hot water heater for good, selling your car, not flying, and never buying new products. We’re starting to get into No Impact Man territory. For those who aren’t familiar, No Impact Man is a blog, book and documentary about a family living in NYC who sought to eliminate their impact on the earth for one year, while having a toddler. They had 5 steps in this process:

  1. Create no waste (compost, buy nothing with material that must be thrown out, reusable diapers)
  2. Buy no new products (this was pretty easy with the caveat of no waste, they only purchased used items)
  3. Expend no energy (they turned the power off in their apartment, Colin had a solar panel to charge his laptop and his wife had electricity at work, no public transportation or elevators, so they walked or biked everywhere, no washing machines or hot water)
  4. Only eat foods grown within 150 miles (no eating at restaurants, no coffee!)
  5. Try to mitigate inherent impacts made from street lamps etc. by volunteering or donating money, with the goal of hitting a net zero

Essentially their goal was zero impact for one year. They did it, but there were certain things that were so hard and on the whole created so little dent in their impact that they stopped. These were things like using a washing machine to wash all the clothes and dirty diapers, drinking coffee, going out to restaurants with friends, and traveling to visit family.

This was my goal and my life for a few years. I felt so guilty for driving anywhere, buying anything new, basically just existing and requiring food and water to live. At first it feels good to change your behavior and feel like you’re making a difference. Then it starts being hard and you feel guilty all the time. Your efforts start to have diminishing returns. If your goal is zero, you will never reach it. But guess what humans: We are animals and we have a role in the ecosystem. There are resources allocated for us and it’s good for us to use them. We are also sentient beings capable of amazing acts of thoughtfulness and we have the capacity to actually do good, not just not do bad. This capacity for good even has a name- handprints. As Jason McClennan, founder of the Living Building Challenge, puts it “…why do we always only count the bad? We try to minimize our footprint, but you’ll always have a footprint… Influence (somebody else) and … you help them reduce their footprint, that’s your handprint. When you teach your child about something or you volunteer for a charity, you’re increasing your handprint. You can create a rich world. It’s not always about what you buy and what you don’t buy to reduce your footprint. Your handprint can be much more beautiful.”

Handprints are things that you do that are good for the planet. Some examples of handprint activities are planting trees or a garden, offering to bring neighbors’ hard-to-recycle items to a recycling plant, offering to pump up others’ tires to ensure they are at proper pressure, posting about your rad worm composting bin on a neighborhood listserv and offering to pick up food scraps from others, trying to give something a new home that you don’t want/need anymore so that someone else won’t have to buy that thing new, or sharing power tools with friends. There are limitless acts of good that you can do! So aim for greater than zero, because you can! You will also get to know your neighbors and feel like more of a social creature. There are so many creative and fun ways to increase your handprint. This article from the Harvard School of Public Health puts it well: aim to have an efficient footprint and a beneficial handprint. Your net impact (benefficiency) is equal to handprint minus footprint. Aim to maximize benefficiency.

I think that the No Impact project missed the point with their fifth goal. They just aimed to offset the small amount of footprint they had left and hit zero, when they should have been aiming way higher than zero with more handprints. It’s an amazing feeling realizing that you don’t have to sacrifice to bare-bones living to be able to make a positive impact. By increasing your handprints you can mitigate a lot of your footprint. It puts the whole equation into a new light. If you are planning a trip back home, you can buy carbon offsets for your flight and help your family set up low-hanging fruit solutions that will be easy for them to continue after you leave. No need to feel guilty about this trip because it’s a net positive!

As environmentalists we tend to throw around the word sustainable a lot. We use it to mean good for the environment, efficient, or even natural. Sustainability actually means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” I, for one, believe that anyone trying to have zero impact will get burned out and will be unhappy over the long run, but I’ve never gotten tired of trying to do more good. Guilt isn’t a part of the equation anymore. As it turns out, happiness and pleasure can correlate with doing good to the earth. In fact, I believe that is the only path forward for us as a species.

Earth Hand image taken from:

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