How many trees does it take to absorb the emissions from your car's commute? How much land does it take to feed and raise the beef you eat for dinner? How much space on earth does your trash take up?
The city of Santa Monica has taken up the task of answering those questions in "Santa Monica's Ecological Footprint, 1990-2000," released in March. The report measures the amount of land used to produce everyday products and services like electricity, transportation, garbage disposal and housing. That land use is called the ecological footprint, and it can be measured individually or citywide.
"If we are taking more from nature than can be provided indefinitely, we are on an unsustainable track," the report notes.
"[The footprint] seemed to us it would make an educational tool to help people understand how to visualize their impacts on the face of the earth," Brian Johnson, manager of the environmental division of the city of Santa Monica told The Journal.
Jewish environmental activists are extremely pleased.
"The city of Los Angeles and cities across the country could learn a valuable lesson from the city of Santa Monica," said Lee Wallach of the Coalition on the Environment in Jewish Life. "They truly do make a real effort."
The report found that between 1990 and 2000, Santa Monica managed to decrease its footprint by 5.7 percent, or about 65,000 acres. That decrease notwithstanding, Santa Monica, a city of 8.3 square miles, still has an ecological footprint of 2,747 square miles, an area approximately the size of Los Angeles County.
"Now that we have [the footprint], we must ask what lessons are learned and how can we implement them in a manner that's good for residents, business and the economy," Wallach said.
According to Johnson, the gains came from the city's efforts to be more environmentally conscious between 1990 and 2000. He noted one area where government has taken the lead and business may want to follow: All public city facilities in Santa Monica are now based on 100 percent renewable energy, which is in large part where the 65,000 acres in savings came from.
"I think the experience the city had during [the California energy crisis] further confirms the decision the city had made in looking for opportunities for alternative energy generation," Johnson said.
Those resource savings from alternative energy sources (in Santa Monica's case, the city purchased geothermal energy) are particularly important: Energy and recycling are actually the only two categories of its footprint that the city managed to significantly shrink.
Nevertheless, Santa Monica has shown that it can make progress toward "sustainability," which is that enlightened scenario where humanity does not consume any more than the earth can replace.
To compare, Santa Monica's new per capita footprint is 20.9 acres. The U.S. average is 24 acres per person. A sustainable level would be a far more modest 4.5 acres per person.
To reach that goal, Wallach emphasized the importance of community working with politicians and businesspeople to create an environmental vision that is not overly idealistic.
"It takes a combination of political and communal will," he said. "It can't happen with only one and not the other."
Doing that, Wallach said, is part of the Jewish duty to future generations, to leave the world in better shape than we inherited it. Santa Monica's footprint is a tool designed to help measure progress in that endeavor.
Santa Monica is a relatively small place, and its report indicates that it has a significant, albeit shrinking, footprint. One cannot help but imagine what the ecological footprint for the city of Los Angeles would look like.
"There have been presentations and discussion at the Westside Council of Governments about sustainability and Los Angeles has been a part of that dialogue," Johnson said. "As of yet we don't have any direct relationships with their programs or planning, but we're certainly hoping that the 800-pound gorilla comes along with us," Johnson said of the second-largest city in the United States sitting next door.
To measure your "footprint," take the quiz at www.myfootprint.org .
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