September 17, 2009

Leave No Trace

From my earliest days of camping with the boy scouts, I was taught and trained to leave no trace. What this meant was that if someone were to come to our campsite after we had left, they would not be able to tell that a group of ten or twenty or thirty boys had just spent a night there. There would be no trash, no dug-up ground, no matted down plants. Looking closely, one might find a few footprints, but that would be all. If previous campers had left trash behind, we would pick it up and pack it out, leaving the campsite better than we found it.

As I grew older, I wondered what it would be like, if it would even be possible, to "leave no trace" in my everyday life at home. I thought of the trash that is produced. I thought of the electricity that is used, the resources used to produce electricity, and the pollution that results. Even the simple act of eating food, I realized, left traces on the environment--some big, some little, depending on how and where the food was grown or raised. It wasn't long before I decided that it's impossible to "leave no trace" on the world. However, at the same time, I realized that it is possible to take some significant steps to reduce one's impact on the world.

Well, it turns out that there is a man who has taken this line of thinking to the extreme. His name is Colin Beavan, although he is more popularly known as "No Impact Man." For one whole year, he and his family unplugged from the grid, produced no trash, travelled exclusively by bike, and bought nothing except food. He's written a book about it, and a documentary movie based on his year of "no impact" living is being shown in select cities across the continent.

For most of us, living as the Beavans did is not realistic or even desirable. However, on his website, Colin lists six guidelines for a "low impact" life. They are:

  1. Save the world by improving your diet. Cutting beef out of your diet will reduce your CO2 emissions by 2,400 pounds annually.

  2. Get your drinking water for free. Giving up 1 bottle of imported water means using up one less liter of fossil fuel and emitting 1.2 pounds less of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

  3. Observe an eco-sabbath. Don’t buy anything, don't use any machines, don't switch on anything electric, don't cook, don't answer your phone, and, in general, don't use any resources. Do it for a whole day each week to cut your impact by 14.4% a year.

  4. Tithe a fixed percentage of your income. If an average family contributes 1% ($502.33) of their annual income ($50,233) to an environmental non-profit, they could offset 40.7 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

  5. Get there under your own steam. If you can stay off the road and ride your bike or walk just two days a week, you'll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,590 pounds per year and get good, healthy exercise and we'll all breathe fewer fumes.

  6. Commit to eco-service. Take time off from television watching each week and join with others to improve our planet. Spend three fewer hours each day sitting in front of your plasma television and you will reduce your carbon emissions by 550 pounds each year.

The leave no trace principles that I learned in scouting have since been formalized into a program called, appropriately, "Leave No Trace." The program, which involves extensive training and recognition, is a partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service (website:

I'm sure I'll never reduce my impact to the extent that the Beavens did. In fact, I think they're just a tad crazy. Yet I'm thankful for the example set by them, and the inspiration it gives me as I continue to seek ways to reduce my impact, and love this earth just a little more.

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