How Much Do You Affect the Ecosystem?

By Josephine Marcotty of the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Results of household survey can change pollution inputs neighborhood by neighborhood.


The human race — you — has become the dominant force of change on the planet. What you eat, how much you drive and even whether you pick up after your dog affects the ecosystem in your neighborhood and around the Earth.

Now, what would it take to get you to change?

An in-depth survey of 3,000 households in Ramsey and Anoka counties is providing environmental researchers at the University of Minnesota insight into just that question.

It turns out that most people really do care about their impact on the environment. But what really drives them to change is knowing how they rank on their own personal pollution scores, and how they compare to their neighbors.

After that comes the simple, American can-do attitude.

“We expect that attitudes will drive 10 or 20 percent of the carbon emissions,” said Larry Baker, a senior fellow at the university’s Water Resources Center and one of the scientists who conducted the Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project. “If we could reduce energy use by 20 percent, that would be a huge benefit.”

Few families of four leave a smaller footprint than the household of Sarah Hobbie, an ecology professor who is involved in the project.

Hobbie’s family lives in a cozy St. Paul bungalow with four — count them, four — programmable thermostats. Either she or her husband walks their son to his nearby school in the morning and then bikes the rest of the way to campus, even in winter. The other drives their daughter to her school.

Three of four in their home are vegetarians (their 4-year-old son eats turkey sandwiches), and they drive a Toyota Corolla.

Their carbon footprint is well below the survey’s average. But still, air travel was killing them. Of the estimated 6,279 kilograms of carbon that make up their annual footprint, 30 percent was because of the monthly trips she and her husband, also an ecology professor, were taking for work.

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