Every year around Earth Day, I’m reminded of papers I graded in an environmental sociology class. The assignment was to assess your values, explain how you thought you would live as an adult (about 20 years in the future), and then complete an online calculator to find out: If everyone in the world lived like you, how many planets would we need?
The students were all young and idealistic, and most of them cared deeply about the environment. In their papers, they professed how they would live their lives in the most sustainable ways possible — eating vegan diets, avoiding car travel, growing their own food, and so on.
Most were sure they’d find a way to make it work without sacrificing luxuries like international travel.
Then they calculated how many planets would be needed to support everyone in the world living with their ideal lifestyle. Every single student required more than one planet. Most needed about three.
That’s right: If everyone in the world lived like these idealistic, passionate environmentalists, we’d need three planets to produce enough resources for their needs.
These papers hit me hard emotionally. When I was their age, I was them. Their dreams were my dreams — only for me, those dreams are dead.
Even the most committed of them couldn’t get her environmental footprint down to what one planet can provide. There’s almost no way to live in the United States as it is now and be fully sustainable. Attempting to do so requires a constant, overwhelming amount of effort.
I know because I’ve tried to do it myself. It was exhausting, frustrating, and often unsuccessful.
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