Let an admission of hypocrisy herald the end of my three-month voyage from California to southern Mexico: I used a lot of petroleum.
The V8 Ford van that I drove, also known as El Hippo (why the name? see side note), had a hunger that was hard to contain. It got a pathetic 12 miles per gallon. Here I am, exploring the effects of climate, advocating solutions to improve the resilience of coastal communities, yet I'm also part of the problem. Nevertheless, as economics teaches us, the true cost depends on the alternatives. So, as an aspiring do-gooder, I'd like to know, "What is the balance of my evil-doings?"
For the nearly 5,000 miles from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Huatulco, Oaxaca, I used just over 400 gallons of gasoline. That has a carbon footprint of roughly 8,000 pounds of CO2 (according to Terrapass, a carbon-offset provider).
Worse, I had to purchase all the gas from Pemex, the Mexican state company that monopolizes the country's fuel production and sales, and which has an atrocious environmental track record (an example here). Their facilities on the Gulf of Mexico have made rivers toxic, destroyed fishing grounds and contaminated groundwater supplies.
As observed in the Voyage of Kiri, preserving biodiversity and clean water are just as important as reducing greenhouse gas emissions for the long-term resilience of our communities. In that light, the worse-case scenario for the ecological impact of my journey is that it slightly raised cancer incidence in a Gulf community, accelerated the upcoming extinction of a frog species in that area and made the next flood in Bangladesh just a bit more devastating. Maybe I'm being melodramatic, but when my behavior is added to that of thousands of other people, those thin causal connections may not be such a stretch.
(In contrast to Pemex, multinational oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon maintain higher standards for legal and strategic reasons. However, they do tend to be abusive when regulations are lax, as shown in a notorious case from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Also, myriad oil spills and accidents like BP's Deep Horizon invariably occur. Another big impact, less related to ecology but of undeniable importance, is the possibility that fuel usage may "fuel" terrorism and democratic repression. Most petroleum purchases support the coffers of military dictatorships and extremist supporters in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Nigeria, as outlined by Thomas Friedman's article "First Law of Petro-Politics" (see PDF). A balancing point: Although Friedman's argument is compelling, it has also been refuted with empirical studies such as one from UCLA (see PDF).
What were the alternatives to driving and using Pemex gasoline?
The van was fondly named El Hippo because of its similarity to the African mammal. Note common characteristics: muddy, open mouth when upset, bulky body. Plus, hippopotamus means "river horse" in Latin, which fits our study of watersheds (and climate).
Staying put, of course, but I had to go to Huatulco to do research anyway. I could have flown in an airplane, which would have contributed 2,300 pounds of CO2, along with a somewhat less destructive ecological footprint, maybe just another oil spill off Galveston. In fairness, instead of driving and camping along the way, I could have spent those three extra months living in an apartment in Mexico, which might consume 4,500 pounds of CO2 of ecological resources (according to the Nature Conservancy footprint calculator). For perspective, if I were commuting to work 40 miles each way per day during that period of three months, I would have used that same amount of fuel as I did during the whole 5,000-mile journey.
So what's the conclusion? Without getting too technical, my ballpark estimate is that in my case, driving was somewhat worse than flying (even though the opposite is usually the case). I hope that readers got enough value from the voyage to make it worthwhile!
On that note, some readers might be curious about my lifestyle back home. The fact is that I do live in America and enjoy the ownership of a laptop, MP3 player and numerous other consumer goods.
In counterbalance, I live in a low-resource environment, aboard a sailboat. During graduate school (studying environmental science at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Bren School), I lived at anchor a half mile from campus and rowed to class. Eighty percent of my energy use was provided by solar power. I did it as an experiment in sustainability and a way to keep life exciting while trudging through my thesis. It certainly kept things fresh, although the wet nights of high tide washing on the cliffs and occasional stormy seas were not so fun. I just feel content that the lifestyle forced me to be very conscious of my natural environment and resource use.
Also on Miller-McCune.com, research suggests being aware of one's environmental footprint could cause an ecological backlash.
At the end of the day, 400 gallons of fuel used by El Hippo was just a drop in the boundless sea of our planetary energy buffet. A fishing boat in Alaska may use that much fuel in a single day to get salmon or crab — and being a fan of seafood, I wouldn't want them to stop! What is important is awareness of the "invisible" costs that need to be accounted for. That lies at the heart of reducing (or reinventing) our resource usage in the coming years.