Walk your carbon footprint: Easter Island style

Imagine representatives of every state of the union gathering in a quarry and carving out “Easter Island” style statues weighing as much as their state’s per capita carbon emissions.  Now imagine them racing these statues along a famous but now dilapidated route (say, 66). 

Which state would win?

chat Posted Sep 24, 2014 by Rezwan | Category : Transporting Stuff Narrative Fun Prizes Footprints
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And what hijinks would ensue? Hours of stone age fun and pay per view.

Naturally, this idea came up while thinking about suitable prizes for the winner of a race to net zero carbon.  At first, we considered it as a stone-age walk of shame for the losing states.  But then we realized there’s no clear winner yet, and that walking giant statues is an evocative embodiment of the race in progress.  A physical metaphor.

I know what you’re thinking.  How would we race Easter Island style statues?  That part is easy.  The bigger challenge is setting up a race related to carbon emissions

First, the statues

It seems those stone age folks didn’t have a lot to do on Easter Island.  Video games were scarce. Out of this void of boredom arose the island pastime of building and walking giant stone statues.

Watch the longer Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo National Geographic lecture here.

Setting up a giant statue race related to carbon emissions

Fast forward to today.  Our youth are trapped in couches and wallowing in video games (a low carbon activity, but still. Get off the couch, Junior!) Our grownups are trapped in arguments about climate change and wallowing in inaction. 

Communicating the challenge is itself a challenge. It’s so abstract. We’re emitting what? Metric tons of CO2? What does that even mean?

Enter the Statues. 

Metric Tons of Carbon Emissions per capita converted to Statue

To simplify, our economy is run on fossil fuels. The fossil fuels are burned to create energy that keeps our vehicles moving, heats and cools our buildings, runs our gadgets, makes our stuff…it’s in everything.  When those fossils are burned, they take oxygen out of the air and attach carbon to it: CO2.  Two molecules of oxygen, one of carbon.  These molecules have weight.  When you add up all the fossil fuels you’ve burned to produce all the stuff you consume, you can calculate the weight. It’s tons and tons of weight. More about carbon accounting here

The emissions of each country vary.  So do the emissions of each state within a country. Here is how it breaks down for the US.

We use Emissions per Capita rather than Total Emissions.  Why?

(Total Emissions) = (Emission per Capita) x Population

If you wanted to reduce “total emissions”, you might be tempted to reduce “population” - and that’s evil. We’re here to serve the population - with clean energy and a great quality of life for all.

So there you have it. The bars of this graph shows the average carbon emissions per person for each state.  To convert to statue, we simply carve out a statue of equivalent weight from the quarry.  Team New York has an 8 ton statue to carve out.  Team Wyoming has a 112 ton statue. 

Good luck, Team Wyoming.

But what does the CO2 Statue actually tell us?

The statue is an incarnation of the average output of CO2 per person from a given state. You might think that this is a meditation on how much CO2 we’re emitting and the threat this poses to the stability of our climate. And it is, but that’s not the main message of the statues or of the CO2 number.

Our CO2 emission number is a handy, simple measure of how dependent we are on fossil fuel, which in turn is a measure of how archaic we are.

Let’s unbundle something here.  We need energy for a great quality of life, but we don’t need fossil fuels to supply that energy.  Fossils are a simple, crude, retro way to get energy, they aren’t the only way.  We can still get a fantastic quality of life without them. There are many strategies to pursue including, but not limited to: Switching to cleaner energy sources like renewables and nuclear; increasing the energy efficiency of our buildings, products and machines; rethinking our lifestyles so that we consume less and enjoy life more. 

It is technically possible to have a brilliant quality of life without burning fossil fuels.  It’s our next stage in life, and it requires thoughtful action.

The CO2 statues show us how much thoughtful action we have yet to take.  They show us to what extent we are holding on to our fossil baggage of the past and not moving ahead to the lighter, cleaner energy of the future.

They show us how big our footprint is, and how small our wings.

Racing to leave the fossil age behind

As you heave the CO2 statue along, you will wonder, why am I holding on to these stranded assets? Why am I struggling? Why don’t I just let go of this heavy weight, and fly? 

Some of you might also think: “Gee, this is fun!  Those stone age people were wicked cool.”

Iterations: a lasting tradition

Every year, the state teams will gather to race again, during the racing season.  As your state reduces its carbon from year to year, you get to race a smaller and smaller statue.  Until finally, you’re just carrying a pebble and sprinting by. And then someone hits zero carbon.

And the crowd goes wild.

Bonus Easter Egg for the Future

The beauty of this race is that it also leaves behind lots of giant statues.  And one era’s stone statue litter is another era’s captivating mystery.

The stonescape of our carbon race litter will tell a story about a time in human history, when we struggled with a big challenge, and overcame it.  The statues will be left on the ground where they stopped, which will correspond to the relative difficulty of moving them.  This will produce a giant infographic in the landscape that will last for milennia.  A fine tourist destination.  An intriguing setting for a park.

All right, let’s get this parallel statue race started.  Who’s in? 


Contact us if you want to sponsor this race!  @Footprint2Wings

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Notes & Related:

What will life look like after the race is won?
The falling price of solar

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