Jan
12
2011

You know what I think makes humans unique? Our ability to solve problems. Ingenuity. Our can-do attitude. Throughout history, if we found a problem, we sought a solution. Too cold at night? Fire. Killing a mammoth with your hands too deadly? A team of spearman. Flash forward thousands of years and our problems became more sophisticated. Horse and buggy too slow? Automobiles. Candlelight not bright enough? Light bulbs. Washing laundry and dishes too tedious? Washing machines and dishwashers. Typewriters cramping your style? Computers. Computers cramping your style? Android phones. (Have you caught my drift? Good.) Now, some of our solutions are becoming new problems. Cars and electricity emit pollutants and greenhouse gases. Washing machines and dishwashers are using too much water. Computers and cell phones require the mining and eventual disposal of toxic metals. Once again, it’s time for some good ol’ human problem solving.

A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.
A Literal Eco-Footprint: Somehow, I don't think this is exactly what Sarah Hobbes and team had in mind.Courtesy urje's photostream (Flickr)

Sarah Hobbes and her collaborators identified a problem: we aren’t doing enough to reduce our household ecologic footprints, especially regarding carbon. Now, they’re working on a solution by researching what influences families to change their living habits and minimize their footprint. This past Sunday’s edition of the Star Tribune covered Sarah’s research story (the Buzz’s own Liza was even quoted!). Sarah Hobbes is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and a resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. Her research project doesn’t take place in a lab, but rather in peoples’ home – including the St. Paul house Sarah shares with her husband (also a University of Minnesota ecologist) and two children. The research team uses a 23-page survey to understand what kind of ecological footprint Ramsey and Anoka county homes are leaving. (Btw, kudos to those of you who already completed the lengthy survey! Science really appreciates people like you.)

Some of the initial results aren’t surprising: While most of us really do care about the environment,

“For most families, cost and convenience are more important than concern about the environment. People in the suburbs tend to use more fertilizer than those in the urban core. People with bigger houses and bigger families had a bigger carbon footprint, as did people who drove farther to work.” (Star Tribune article)

But what’s most interesting is that competition really gets us going. That is, respondents were motivated to reduce their ecological footprint after they compared their own rank to their neighbors’. Larry Baker, a project collaborator, stated,

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions… If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.” (Start Tribune article)

No kidding! That would be fantastic!! The full survey report hasn’t been published yet, but I’m sure looking forward to the recommended solution.

Want to know your ecological footprint? Try out this online Ecological Footprint Quiz.

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