Carbon Handprints, not Footprints

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May 20, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

Do you know the size of your Carbon Footprint?

Whether you’re a recycling eco-warrior or gas-guzzling waster, everyone has one. From the electricity you use to the wrappers you throw away, everything we do has an impact and leaves a mark on the planet.

But the whole concept has a problem. It oozes negativity. The focus is always on the damage we do, and trying to reduce that damage. It’s a depressing image. If George Orwell was more environmentally minded, the quote might read something like ‘imagine a carbon boot stamping on Mother Nature.’

But there’s a new school of thought being promoted. One that approaches our Carbon impact from a positive view, using a Carbon Handprint. Greg Norris is the founder of, the site that explains the concept and shows people how it works and how to get involved. A teacher in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), he studies the science of Carbon footprints, and the negative impacts that footprint produce.

“Life cycle assessment shows that everything we buy has negative impacts, no matter how “green” it might be claimed to be,” he explains. “So, I started to ask myself, and my students, and my colleagues: ‘In light of what we have learned from LCA, who thinks that the world would be better off if they hadn’t been born?’”

“Nearly everyone tends to answer, albeit a bit sheepishly, that yes, they guess the planet would have been better off without them. That despite our best efforts, our being here is doing more harm to the planet than good. I thought that there had to be a better way to think and act in relation to this issue. A more positive way. ”

The concept is simple. Instead of focusing on the Footprint and the harm, the handprint focuses on the good, and calculates the benefits we can put into the environment. These range in scope, but could include things like boosting fuel efficiency by inflating tires to the correct pressure or saving paper by printing two-sided documents.

Once you’ve measured your Carbon Footprint, you create the handprint through your actions, and the eventual aim is that the handprint is bigger than your Footprint, meaning you are generating an entirely positive effect on the planet. How much you do is up to you and what’s within your means, so turning the heating down a notch or using public transport in lieu of the car we can all do, not everyone may be willing to eat less red meat or re-insulate the attic. There’s a whole range of options and the app is open to new ideas and suggestions. Much of it is based on a study published by Gardner and Stern, which identified the most effective actions that US households can take to curb climate change.

There’s a big social network/community element to it too. Friends who take action because of you contribute towards your handprint. The more people they recruit the more it contributes to your handprint, almost like an environmental Ponzi scheme.

“There are hundreds of actions we can take that are positive. We can measure their impacts, compare them to our footprint, and keep working until the net result is positive,” Greg says, positively. “Seeing that impact grow, seeing that somebody halfway around the world chooses to install fluorescent lamps because you suggested it and someone else passed it on to them – that’s encouraging. It will overcome the fear of disappointment in more and more people.”

The idea itself has been around for years, but Handprinter is just getting started.

“Our web-based Handprinter app is still very young, only a little over three months now. In that time we’ve come pretty far, pretty fast, thanks to our developers and team: from a simple demo site to what will be, on May 21, a first full beta,” Gregg explains.

In the short time the website has been up, Handprinter has gathered over 1000 likes on Facebook (‘we can always use more of those!’), and through volunteers translations into Spanish and French are in the works, as well as continual improvements on the app.

Though it’s only a few months old, the concept of a Carbon Handprint has already reached out across the world. In March, it was featured in TIME’s ’10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life’ special.

“The overall reaction has been very positive, Dan Goleman hit the nail right on the head with his article. We are still getting emails from people around the world who find and read that issue of TIME and then visit the Handprinter site, writing to us with support and feedback.”

So what makes it different? “I think we’re changing what you get from the footprint-reduction perspective by adding the positive changes we can make,” Greg says. “We are putting handprints right beside footprints, and setting a context where people can strive to make their handprints bigger than their footprints, so that their net impact is a positive one.”

Greg Norris- Founder of Handprinter

Though many would see getting your idea into an international magazine an achievement, Greg sees it differently. “When you look at the scale of our dream, and where we are today, it’s still too soon to talk about ‘achievements.’ We’re hungry and working all-out to build and grow this thing into something real, durable, and dynamic. We’re like a team in pre-season. It’s all about the future – a future that starts today!” He says excitedly.

A core principle of the concept it that it’s aimed at everyone. From mothers and kids at home to Church communities and offices. “We believe that everyone would love to play a healer’s role in this world, but that most of us are hardly sure where to start,” He says. “We believe that individuals, families, communities, companies, countries, they all want to be healers, not destroyers. Empowering action that satisfies this deep desire is what Handprinter is all about.”

“We want to make it easy, and even fun, for people to understand their environmental impacts, and to engage with them in an uplifting way which is all about making their net impact on the world a positive one.” One group of that has embraced the concept is teachers. Many have been in contact to find ways to integrate Handprinting into their classrooms, and Greg’s team is working on materials to help them with that. The younger generation, especially students, has also reacted positively, suggesting ways to help the concept speak to them.

While Greg admits Handprinter isn’t ‘on Bono’s radar yet’ he’s hopeful it soon will be. But there have been endorsements from other corners.

“The author Dan Goleman has been a huge help to us, bringing handprints to a wider audience, through the World Economic Forum and TIME Magazine, and even giving me the chance to present this idea to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India last October,” he says.

One of the people who presented to His Holiness was environmental psychologist Elke Weber, who has gotten behind the concept. “She has told me that we’re doing a few key things right with Handprinter. Her field of research shows that you can get people’s attention big-time with scary bad news, but you won’t hold it. We humans reserve our powers of sustained attention and action for things that are positive and rewarding to us.”

Of course new ideas, especially ones that become popular, are often met with negativity from certain corners. But it seems Handprinter has avoided that trap. “I think I can count the nay-saying so far on one hand. A few people have worried “oh, that’s just putting a positive spin” on things. But you turn a battleship with force, not spin,” he says. “Forceful action comes from sustained effort, which for most of us requires positive vision and lasting inspiration. Tell me if ‘making your footprint smaller, so that you are trashing the planet a bit less,” gives you lasting inspiration? But how about becoming a planet-healer?”

“Way more numerous have been people saying; “Great start, but please make it more relevant to my demographic, my region, my situation.” And that is exactly where we’re headed as fast as we can.” Greg explains that after the full Beta is released the next area of opportunity is localisation, making it relevant to each individual in each community. “Of course, language localisation will also be a necessary piece of ensuring universal accessibility- Localisation of footprint calculations, and most of all localisation of handprint actions.”

Handprinter is also looking towards partnering with companies help them engage with their customers and encourage them to consider how they use their products. Greg is hoping that clothing manufacturers may encourage low-temperature washing and line drying or tire manufacturer could encourage proper tire inflation while a grocery store chain could encourage planet-healthy / heart-healthy eating.

“Another key partnership is going to be with banks. Banks have technology that can enable our users to redirect the money they save into planet-positive uses, whether early retirement, education, re-investment in more handprints, or all of the above. These re-investments will multiply each action’s impacts, and avoid a kind of mindless ‘rebound effect’ where savings are just spent on low-benefit consumption that erodes much of the original handprint.”

Some of you might be thinking that you don’t have the time to change the world, but even the smallest thing increases the size of your handprint, including giving to charity. “It’s about exerting influence for good. You can do that with information [through] persuasion, motivation or new ideas, labor, and funding.” Even bigger decisions out of your hands can contribute. “Changes to government policy could count if and when we are able to characterise the impacts of a government policy.”

So what’s better, everyone doing a little bit, or more focus on changing the way the big companies and institutions do things? “Which is better: breathing or eating? We need both and in Handprinter, there are feedback loops between them. Everything you do as an individual or in teams at work to green your organisation is part of your handprint.” Greg says he has no ambitions to try to use Handprinter for political lobbying, as he wants to keep the focus on it being for everyone.

Getting to some of the gritty details, my Carbon Footprint stands at around ten tons year. How big does my handprint get for spreading the word with this article? “It’s up to your readers to tell us all that!” he jokes. “When people take handprint actions they’ll have the opportunity to say how they got there, or why they did it. You’ll get handprint credit the actions of anyone who comes to Handprinter because of this article – and the actions of the people that they bring.” When quizzed about his own Handprint, Greg admits it’s tiny, but he’s ‘working on it.’

A recent report by the Royal Society said; “Economic and environmental catastrophes unavoidable unless rich countries cut consumption and global population stabilises.” These kinds of reports are commonplace, most of them proclaiming our doom, but is it too late?”I guess that is not negativity, but a warning that many natural systems in which we live have ‘tipping points,’ Greg says. “It’s not our call whether or not it’s “too late.” It’s our call whether to act, now, transformatively, on an unprecedented scale. That’s a real option, and it’s what we’re trying to empower.”

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