Better (Not Smaller) Footprints

So, I am trying to put down some coherent thoughts on the trope of the carbon footprint and how it (perhaps) performs a troublesome ontology for environmentalism. Here goes: 

Carbon footprint has wandered in and out of environmental discourse for sometime now. It’s staying power is impressive and is a testimony to its power as a potent argumentative trope. It has no doubt shaped people’s attitudes and actions in ways environmentalists and environmental activists find amelioratory. Carbon footprint compels us to attend to our environmental impact in embodied as well as quantifiable ways: how does what we do and how we move discernibly impact our environment?

There is, nevertheless, something that doesn’t quite sit well in the metaphor of the footprint: the way it positions humans relative to their environments. Again, it bears productively upon movement and place, which constitute the two key elements of an environment. It very much grasps the stakes of footprints, but it does so at the cost of making the primary ethical stance one of absence, of disconnection, and one cast in terms of the lack of movement. The one who does the least does best. I argue that this hands-off (or foots-off) approach comes at price. In short, any ethics that disparages relations and the traces they leave can be no ethics, which are fundamentally relational. I want to trace the emergence and persistence of the footprint metaphor (affirmatively) and then read it through (and against) various new materialist and speculative approaches in order to suggest its ontological dimensions and limitations. What ways of being in the world does it de/prescribe and how does that ontology itself do rhetorical work that may in fact run counter to the sentiments of its proponents? I want as well to perform an affirmative recovery of the footprint trope in service of a more robust environmentalism.

Footprints compose. They can composes otherwise. But they cannot float above.  

Footprints compose. They can composes otherwise. But they cannot float above.  

The footprint works synecdotally for much contemporary environmentalism: absence, wildness, wilderness all suggest or argue for an ethics of distance, which I (following in the footsteps of environmental critics like Cronon and Birch and Latour) treat as suspect. This is not to suggest that environmentalism is reducible to this trope or that the trope perfectly and universally represents the work of environmentalism: it is a but a part, but its prominence suggests it might be a more concrete and strategic manifestation of environmentalism’s ontology presently.  

I want to think more intensely, more rhetorical, about the footprint. For instance, to think in terms of movement, embodiment, place and inscription, which are all sideline by our particular employment of footprint. What is it to place one’s feet, to inscribe with one’s own body? And then would more or less remain the proper continuum for adjudication? Furthermore, in privileging the quantitative over the qualitative (more or less rather than kind or quality) the move is fundamentally arhetorical.

To think intensely about/with the footprint metaphor beyond size, beyond measurement, not because such approaches are wrong or not useful, but because they severely limit our ability to think through the trails we make, the paths we trace as we move with/in an environment, which is something more than an already existing container. A walk through the woods. A walk instead of a drive. Thinking fully about our footprints, and where the meaning of better is precisely what is up for grabs, at stake, composed.