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Zero is the Wrong Number

May 1st, 2007 by dk

I think the “Zero Footprint” model for responsible planetary citizenship is insufficient and dangerous. I think it’s rooted in a liberal self-hatred that seems a residue of or reaction to white privilege. It does seem to me to be a white Western thang. I think it’s why we so easily dismiss bleached flour, cane sugar, Basmati rice, and plain vanilla ice cream — white is bad. Even our laundry detergent has to have little specks of color in it to show it’s “whiter than white.” But I digress, and I hate myself for it. Just so you know.

Think about it. Zero Footprint says it would be better if I had never been here. That’s not what we learned in Boy Scouts. The goal isn’t to leave a campsite as we left it, but to leave it better. Since we’re not in a stable situation climate-wise, getting to zero is an arbitrary spot, and insufficient at that. It’s narcissistic, but also deeply self-immolating. Lynn Marguilus, a famous biologist at Harvard and the mother of Carl Sagan’s son, refers to humans as “mammalian weeds.” The world would be oh-so-much better if we just went away, or even better if we had never trod this beautiful world. Zero Footprint.

Maybe she’s right, but what of it? Must it always be so? If our greed has made us uniquely destructive, can’t our charity be mobilized to make us an equally powerful force for good? Can any of the many forces beneath us in the food chain bring redemption to themselves and their environment? Isn’t that belief what all this activism sits on top of? (See what I mean about questions?)

Here’s a better model than Zero Footprint to consider, one that expresses charity and equality and community and longsightedness. It’s analogous to the Sister City program, and maybe it could be connected to it. We in Eugene have a sister city in Nepal (Katmandu). If every American partnered with another human elsewhere, we could measure our carbon footprint together. This sets the bar for us lower initially (since it’s the average of the two humans), but adds two other aspects: context and community. As others are lifted out of poverty, their carbon footprint will get larger, so ours will need to get smaller — but other problems (like starvation and civil unrest) will also be abated. If the resulting sacrifice is not sufficient for you, adopt a rich person and strive to make your collective Footprint Zero. Either way, the goal is Zero, but not Null. There are now two of you. Then we’ll imagine being connected with the choices and fate of another human — one who we cannot fully control.

Isn’t that what’s so deeply so? Aren’t we all in this together? Loving another person, making sacrifices on their behalf, lifting them up to be equal to us — this is the highest, best use of this evolutionary experiment we call self-consciousness. In the end, it’s the only hope we’ve got. The planet has a multitude of hopes ahead, many that involve cockroaches but not humans, or with no life as we know it but also without us knowing it. The father of modern chemistry posited the conservation of matter 250 years ago. All that is, will survive. Everything is being constantly rearranged. It’s only humans who are imperiled. So it’s only right that we alone can reverse what we have wrought.

I understand that Al Gore’s arguments are nascent. It’s quite brilliant to begin with the NASA photos and the idea that we can only now imagine the planet as a whole. But I think we may get where we want to go more quickly if we end the argument on a human level, imagining and being reminded of the unique joy we draw from loving another person. That uniquely “privileged position” is no “illusion.” It’s real and everyday and powerful. It has changed the world — it will again. And always for the better.

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