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Social footprint

Jacques Dufresne


In only a few years, the concept of the “ecological footprint” has spread to the point of becoming a commonplace in ecology, and it has surely helped inspire people to adopt behaviours that are more and more respectful of nature. The notion of a “social footprint” is arguably equally necessary. Our lifestyle may cause ruptures in social relationships just as it may disturb the equilibrium of nature – and it often happens that the same choice or the same behaviour is noxious to both nature and society.

''Although we understood the concept of ecological footprint, we did not fully understand the footprint of broken social relationships.''
 Woody Tasch, Slow Money

In his book, Slow Money,  Woody Tasch tells this story about a typical businessman: «My most recent software company had its offices in the World Trade Center. On 9/11, we were pretty much wiped out, most of our records gone. When we started trying to put some of the pieces back together, I made the rounds to my directors. These were many of the leading investment bankers on Wall Street, individuals with whom and for whom I had made many, many millions of dollars in my previous ventures.
One of them said to me, “Why don’t you have Osama fund your re-start?”
At that moment, I realized that I had no relationships with these people. I realized that there had been nothing but commercial ties between us. The money connections were not real relationships.

As he spoke, it became clear that while many of us had been aware for some time of the manner in which the modern economy depends on and produces broken ecological relationships, we had not been fully cognizant of the corollary damage done to social relationships. Although we understood the concept of ecological footprint, we did not fully understand the footprint of broken social relationships.''1

The concept of a social fingerprint could be very useful, but is it possible to quantify these matters as have those related to the ecological fingerprint, in a way that will capture people’s imagination? It isn’t clear how this might be done, considering the fact that the difference between a real relationship and a simple contact is qualitative in nature. We could however identify a certain number of indirect indicators, similar to those which allow us to calculate the ecological footprint. The number of intermediaries between the producer and the purchaser of a good might be one such indicator. Clearly, we don’t become friends with all the producers from whom we directly buy goods, but it is clear that the closer we get to zero intermediaries between us, the greater are the chances of establishing a truly human relationship, especially if the goods in question are important to us, as in the case of food for the spirit or the body. The size of stores where we normally do our shopping, the distance we must travel to get to them, on foot or in a car, may also be assessed. The time spent in a car or on public transport, and not speaking to anyone could be another piece of data. Such time is, socially, “dead” time, and the time we might thus save does not necessarily become “living” time. The desire to form real connections, and the skills to do so and to maintain them depend on an inner receptiveness. That receptiveness, or “availability” itself presupposes that we are not engaged in an activity that so consumes us as to suggest that attention paid to another is a distraction to be avoided. Having free time to pay attention remains, no matter what, a condition of caring for another. Hence the importance of religious services and other ritual times, such as the annual family vacation which plucks us out of our normal trajectory, the path leading us not toward the true end, that is, love and all that it brings, but toward secondary ends that are, in reality, only means.

What would be the value of a social footprint? Could it not serve as a tool in a new kind of social engineering? Applied to specific development projects, it would at least have the benefit of improving the analysis of the social impact which, although considered, is still viewed as far less important than the study of environmental impact.
It is in this spirit that the Center for Sustainable Innovation has outlined the principles of a method of calculating the social footprint. The adjective “social” signifies three things: (1) strictly speaking, social capital (networks, etc.); (2) human capital (personal health, knowledge, etc.); and (3) built capital (roads, buildings, etc.).

If we are to evaluate it on the basis of results of an Internet search of the term “social footprint,” this new notion has not yet elicited much interest. Searches of Social Pedjada and Soziale Fussabdruck do not yield many more hits. On the other hand, many in France use the expression “social footprint” (empreinte sociale), but without specifying how it is calculated. In one blog, for example, I found an invitation to encourage an economy that would permit people to reduce their ecological footprint and increase their social footprint by participating in a movement of relocating production and consumption activities and in developing responsible behaviours that promote solidarity. The writer seems to have adopted the principles enunciated by the Center for Sustainable Innovation, which suggests a method of evaluation in which a score higher than 1 is to be encouraged, whereas in the case of the ecological footprint, a high score is to be avoided.

1- Woody Tasch, Slow Money, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Jct, Vermont.



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Jacques Dufresne's

The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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