Big Feet and Small Hands

Here’s an existential question to ponder as we grapple with issues of sustainability and planetary resources: Is the world better off with us or without us?

For the record, I’m not advocating that we all off ourselves out of misplaced eco-guilt. But think about it. Rarely do we take the positive view of our impact on the planet. We’re all familiar with the idea of carbon footprints, the measure of our negative environmental impacts. In fact, after some Harvard students learned to calculate life cycle assessments, they wondered if the planet wouldn’t be better off if they weren’t born.

But can we also leave a lasting, positive legacy?

That’s the idea behind a new web site called handprinter.org. Instead of a carbon footprint measuring your personal trail of environmental havoc, it measures your handprint, or what you’re doing to make the planet more sustainable. It’s the sunnier side of sustainability.

First you calculate your footprint. (I’m ashamed to admit mine was rather large). So why is mine so big? After all, I’m an avowed, long time environmentalist. Turns out the site’s not fully operational yet and only asked me a couple of questions — and I got bashed for all my flights. My footprint is essentially 20 times bigger than the global average, a breathtaking number.

Then, you measure your positive impacts, or your handprint. Once again, the site only asked a handful of questions so I didn’t get credit for my rain barrel, LED lamps, composting, recycling, eating organic, growing my own food, etc. (More questions are on the way, according to the site.) Maybe one day, my handprint will be bigger and my footprint smaller.

You can also increase your handprint by taking a pledge and sharing ideas with those in your social network. As they adopt habits, you get credit for not only your actions, but theirs as well.

In this week’s Time Magazine article, “Handprints, not footprints”, cognitive scientist Elke Weber says that the idea could help people overcome a mental barrier. “When folks harp on the harm we do to the planet, we feel bad and want to do something to feel better – and then we tune out,” the article says. “But if we have a positive goal in mind that we can take small, manageable steps toward, we feel good – and are more likely to keep going.”

Good advice for all sustainability communicators pushing for true behavior change.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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