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Sacred & Mundane

Planet Shame

Consumer Consequences

by Kiera Butler

Published in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Let’s get started.

American Public Media’s Consumer Consequences game is basically an online carbon footprint calculator dressed up as a slick, animated adventure. Once I’m done, I’m told, I’ll know how many Earths would be required to support our global population if everyone lived like me.

I’m feeling pretty good about this. I’m a carless twenty-something almost-vegetarian who lives with a roommate in an Oakland, California, neighborhood where residents recycle with the same zeal that folks in other places play competitive sports. After signing on and selecting a glamorous avatar, I breeze through the Home section, entering the number of people in my apartment—two—and the size of my home—between five hundred and one thousand square feet. Since I can hear my roommate chewing in the kitchen when I’m lying in bed, I suspect this is not exactly living large. I’m right. If everyone lived like me, the game says, we’d need .8 Earths. The Trash section is easy, too. I estimate that my household recycles about 90 percent of paper, glass, aluminum, and plastics. My score doesn’t change.

Next it’s time to enter my commuting and travel stats. The game tells me that 76 percent of American commuters drive to work alone, 12 percent carpool, 5 percent use public transportation, 3 percent work from home, 3 percent walk to work, and 1 percent bike or find another way to work. I carpool in the morning; in the evening I take a commuter train. Not too bad, but air travel’s got me kind of worried, since I’m kind of bicoastal, flying from the West Coast to the East about three times a year, plus one or two other short plane trips. I estimate that I spend forty hours a year on a plane. Ouch. I’m up to 1.9 Earths. But since the next section is about food, I’m hoping my farmers’ market addiction will redeem me.

The game wants me to estimate how much of each food group I consume, and I come up with the following (extremely reasonable, in my opinion) breakdown: 10 percent from meat and fish, 20 percent from dairy, 30 percent from grains, 40 percent from vegetables. But wait—what’s this? They want me to say how often I eat out. A curveball! A few times a week I don’t have time to go home and cook, but I have to eat something. So dinner often comes in the form of a burrito, hastily inhaled en route to an evening activity. That habit, combined with the nine cups of coffee I drink every week brings me up to four Earths. My avatar smiles at me innocently from the corner of the screen. As if everything’s okay!

On to Shopping. Even with my rather modest spending habits (thank God they didn’t ask me what percentage of my wardrobe comes from the ecological horror show Forever 21), my final score is a sobering 4.7 Earths.

I’m kind of freaking out, so I call up Joellen Easton, an American Public Media producer who helped develop the game, and fess up. Joellen’s totally nice, and not appalled at all by my mortifying score. She’s gotten a lot of feedback from the quarter of a million players who have completed the game so far. “We’ve heard from people who use six Earths,” she says. “They’re horrified. Then they come back a few months later and leave a comment saying they’ve made changes, and their score’s gone down.” Joellen has discovered a true secret eco-weapon: shame. Neatly packaged in an adorably unassuming game. Brilliant.

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