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Updated: Sep 26, 2020

My life is not just or sustainable (and how I know)

The results from my US-life carbon footprint test, from this website.

I’ve been posting photos on social media about the produce I’ve been getting from our local organic farm, or about the nature that I’m seeing as we hike our way around NW Indiana during the pandemic, and I’ve been writing about community gardens, monitoring the environment, and questioning blind patriotism. I used to work at an organization in Costa Rica that was seeking to both study and promote social justice and environmental sustainability. But the reality is, my life is pretty far from being “just” toward others, and “sustainable” in all senses of the word.

I’m not just saying this to be politically correct (PC), or to make anyone around me feel guilt or shame, nor am I saying it be sarcastic, manipulative or use reverse psychology (whatever that is). It’s a real conundrum for many of us, and possibly for you, dear reader. I think most of us would really like our presence here on this earth to leave a positive impact for others, and not do too much to damage the earth (or even to leave the earth better off than it was before we lived our lives).

In fact, I’d venture to say probably all of us feel that way.

So it can be a bit of a downer to look around and realize that we’re not actually succeeding, or succeeding very well, at being just and sustainable. Or to look around and feel like we all have very specific ideas about what it looks like to leave the world a better place, and we don’t agree with each other (so we have ugly political fights or stop speaking to family members or friends).

But today I want to say that there is some kind of continuum between being 100% just and sustainable, and being 0%, and all of us fall somewhere in the middle. It is my hope that throughout this blog can explore together some practical, realistic ways to move closer to the 100% just and sustainable life. Spoiler alert: we’re never going to get there. Some of us have further to go on that scale than others (I’m one of those people with a long way to go), and all of us will move at our own speeds. But let’s try, shall we?

What does it mean to be just and sustainable, and how do I know that I’m falling short? Well, there happen to be ways to measure some of these things (of course we could debate the validity of the measures until the cows some home, but they can give us an idea). One measure that I really like is a carbon footprint estimator, used by Heidi Michelsen at the Praxis Center in Costa Rica, which is the host of the Valparaiso University Costa Rica Study Center. I filled it out for myself from my life in Costa Rica, and my life here in Valparaiso, Indiana. I’ll show you my results, below.

What’s great about this estimator is that it gives you the chance to see many of the potential lifestyle factors that contribute to a carbon footprint, so it comes with built-in practical advice about decreasing it, if you can. It’s not a perfect measure, of course, but again, we’re looking for a general idea and some suggestions for improvement.

For example, I know that in Costa Rica my footprint was going to be lower because I didn’t have a dryer, I didn’t heat or cool my house, I didn’t have a vacuum or dishwasher, and we only had one car (but plenty of Costa Ricans don’t even have one). I also knew that electricity in Costa Rica is generated through over 95% renewable energy (hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind). So no matter how much electricity I used there, the carbon footprint is less than even a small amount of energy used where fossil fuels are burned.

The diapers hanging in Costa Rica

According to this estimator, a globally sustainable footprint level (where atmospheric CO2 levels would stabilize at 450ppm) is approximately 1,000 kg of CO2 per capita. OK, 1,000 kilos, got it? The global average today is 3,791 kg per person. So, almost four times the needed level. In the US, our average per capita footprint is 33,704 kg, or 33 times the “legal limit,” if we want to use that kind of thinking. The average Costa Rican footprint is 4,026 kg.

Here is my confession: My Costa Rican life had a footprint of 10,322 kg of CO2 per year. My US life is 19,067 kg of CO2 per year. The estimator breaks this down into categories, so you can see where your footprint is the biggest.

The main reason my footprint is so high is due to my international flights back and forth from Costa Rica (but let's be honest, all of them are too high). The fact that I have an international life is at the same time fascinating and fun and potentially good for the world, and it is also pretty bad for the planet.

OK, that’s just one measure having to do with sustainability. How about justice? Well, Harvard has a test for implicit bias, as in, you can test yourself on your own racist bias. Again, we can debate this test all day long, but it was made my scientists and after doing it, even with some skepticism, I can see how it would measure implicit bias. Give it a try if you're curious.

I tested myself on racial bias between black and white people in the United States, and indigenous and white people. It turns out that I personally had “no automatic preference” for white or black people, and a “slightly automatic association between Native American and American (over White and American).” I attribute my own results to living in Costa Rica for 9 years and often being the only white person at the movies, the mall, the grocery store, church, etc etc. And the fact that I look at and love the faces of my brown husband and children every day. Before all of that, I think it would have scored differently.

But in the larger scheme of things, my one personal result doesn’t change the lives of black or indigenous people in the US (though the results of enough people could!). Check out how all the people who have taken these tests have scored:

This shows that 68% of people who took this test have an automatic preference (bias) towards European Americans, versus 14% that have a bias towards African Americans.

This shows that 59% of the people who have taken this test associate Native Americans with "Foreign," versus 23% that associate them with "American."

There is pretty clearly a social racial bias in favor of whiteness in the US. But personal implicit bias is only one factor that leads toward justice or injustice. I can personally have no bias against people of color, but at the same time my family can own land in a treaty area with the Lakota people that was disrespected (a.k.a. stolen land). My great-great-grandparents came to the US from Sweden and homesteaded in South Dakota, and the very next generation included a South Dakota district court judge (my great-grandfather). Another great-great grandfather was a state representative in South Dakota. This is a very different experience (and resulting economic situation) than those whose great-great-grandparents came here as slaves and never made or saved any money or had any political power for many generations.

Hence my statement, above, that despite our best efforts, we live in a system and world that necessarily makes our lives pretty unjust and unsustainable. Correcting that kind of history means some pretty big changes, changes that go way beyond the personal.

OK, here's one more, and I'll keep it short because I hope to write about these items in the future. I find the global banana, coffee, and sugar trades to be exceedingly unjust and unsustainable. These are “dessert crops” grown in Costa Rica, and they tend to prop up unjust and unsustainable systems in Costa Rica, Central America, and around the world.

My confession:

I buy bananas, coffee, and sugar, and hardly ever organic or fair trade. There, I’ve said it. I do draw the line at pineapples. More on all of those things in future posts.

(I was going to put a photo here of my offending purchases, but I decided I am not going to dignify them with a visual. You know what bananas and coffee and sugar look like.)

Ok, confession over. Let’s move on, and seek to do better, together. I’ll continue to unpack what all of this means for me and for people I know, in future posts. Thanks for being here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please like this post (if you like it!) and write to me at, or leave comments, below. Let me know in the comments, what steps do you take to try to be more just, or sustainable? Is there anything you would like to work on? We can do it together!

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