A college-aged woman carrying an Earth on her back.
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I am single-handedly running Earth into the ground.

I know this because I had to calculate my ecological footprint for my environmental studies class last Thursday. For reference, an ecological footprint is a measure of an individual’s personal impact on the environment — a comparison between the demand one puts on Earth’s natural resources versus what the Earth is actually able to supply. To determine mine, I answered questions about my food intake (how many animal-based or processed products I consume), what type of house I live in, my modes of transportation, how often I buy new clothes or gadgets and so on. 

Upon finishing the survey, the result page came up and presented me with the statement, “If everyone lived like you, we would need 5.3 Earths.”

Ah jeez. I scrolled to the next statement. “If everyone lived like you, by March 9th, we would have used as much from nature as Earth can renew in an entire year.” 

“Oh gosh,” I verbally announced. I could seriously be the sole reason we’re in a sixth mass extinction right now. 

I then turned to the response questions for the assignment, where I was asked how I could improve my footprint, more specifically, how I could “be the change.” I sat back and thought through my past week, trying to identify times when I had tanked nature’s future. 

From reflecting, I realized that while my ecological footprint was through the roof, my actual footprint was possibly higher — my activity app measured 18,000 steps the other day. During my first week of classes, I was so overwhelmed that I called my mom crying from the floor of my bedroom. The conversation provided no huge insights into bettering my ecological footprint, only proof that the Earth and I were actually in tough competition for exhaustion levels — I’ve been energetically and socially stunted from the pandemic.

“It’s hard,” I panicked. “I don’t know how to do regular school. I have to walk to my classes. I have to figure out where to walk in-between them when I don’t have time to deep-dive into a huge assignment but also have too much time to just eat a snack. Then I walk back and forth from the house all day for my meals. And of course, I have to interact with everyone while I do it.”

“You’re just not adjusted to regular life,” my mom told me. “You’ll get there.”

Continuing to reflect on my week, I thought about my first game day as a Michigan Wolverine: entering the Big House, chills rising on my arms as I looked down at the sea of students, beaming and cheering, all overjoyed about making their debut from two years of hibernation. I was again exhausted that night from such a surreal yet overstimulating day. 

I guess I could’ve skipped the half-time hot dog? Avoided food from animals? I laughed to myself as I pictured my Graduate Student Instructor reading my response that I’d “be the change” by boycotting stadium meat. 

The reality was, I had no idea how to fix my ecological footprint. I had no idea how to even navigate normal life on campus, and here I was, trying to cough up ideas on how I could “be the change.” While I was unable to find a legitimate way to improve the Earth’s life, I had identified a pattern of overstimulation and tiredness within my own.

This week, a hundred percent of my effort has gone towards trying to figure out what floor of what library is a good spot to do my work, how much of the professor’s words I should get down as he spews into the unpausable abyss, and if I have time to stop at home for dinner or go straight to dance practice before then going out for the night. I may be a sophomore in name, but I feel like a freshman in mind and body. And I’m not the only one. 

My friends and I joke that we’re like astronauts who returned from space with bones and muscles ill-equipped to handle the pressure of gravity. It’s an odd concept — having to “catch up” to a “normal” life, struggling through what is supposed to be “an average day.” I, along with my entire age group and perhaps even the entire student body, am realizing that I didn’t know what I was missing while I was missing it. I regressed as a functioning, social human without even knowing.

Being a stranger to the school at which I spent a year of my life is weird. I knew the University of Michigan was a “big school,” but I didn’t actually comprehend its vastitude until I went to Festifall last week. My intentions included adding a club to my repertoire — perhaps something would help me contribute to the community, to “be the change.” I walked around in awe, taking in the number of people, the diversity of students, their styles, conversations, initiatives, interests. I walked and walked, read material at booths, analyzed the buzzing Diag. Overwhelmed, I added no clubs. Suddenly, the ones I already belonged to sufficed. I sympathized with the Earth as I left, unable to provide all the personal resources that felt demanded of me. I needed to listen to my own body and mind’s needs. 

I’m acutely aware that now is not the best time for self-focus, though. Within the past month or so, there’s been a deadly hurricane, an abortion ban, continued Taliban chaos, wildfires and more. Usually, I like to stay updated, know current events and contribute charitably wherever I can, whether that entails reading the New York Times at night or FaceTiming my family to discuss confusing details. I like to be able to understand issues and their players and participate in conversations with friends or in classes. I like being informed. 

But right now, I don’t feel like I have the capacity to do so. I don’t know nearly enough about any of these events as I should. In full transparency, I can say I know that they happened and that’s about it. My awareness is not looking good — I feel civically irresponsible. Not to mention, I’m apparently taking down the environment, too.

Keeping up with the news, staying politically and globally educated, contributing to causes you care about and of course, staying relatively environmentally friendly requires a concerted effort, regardless of the time period or what’s going on in the world. But as college students today, we are expected to keep up with the world beyond ourselves, while also re-learning real life here in Ann Arbor. I question if it is acceptable to hold off a semester on joining a new organization or if it is irresponsible to know less about current events. Is it lazy to not have the capacity to figure out how to improve an ecological footprint?

Generally speaking, I do not believe anybody has the privilege to dismiss life and issues outside their personal bubble. It’s negligent and self-centered. But I also have a small voice — one which I’m afraid to let speak up — saying that right now, focusing on myself is OK. It’s OK if I skim the news when I can, engage in conversation when possible and provide a heartfelt contribution to bettering our environment at a later date. I’ve got to obtain the footing itself before I can shape my footprint. This means, at least for a little while, maybe I don’t have to hold myself to the same standards I did before the pandemic. Maybe I don’t need to “be the change” — at least for right now. 

This slightly disheartening, yet nonetheless unavoidable truth probably goes for all aspects of life: the bar that was achievable in 2019, is, at least for now, lower. We should be easy on ourselves. We should lower our expectations of what we can and need to do. 

Right now, I’ll “be the change” by making sure I healthily balance my academics, social life, extracurriculars and downtime. I’ll take things off my plate that nudge me closer to feeling too overwhelmed. I’ll reach out to my peers and discuss the difficulty of this adjustment that they may be too nervous to outwardly express, thinking they’re the only ones struggling. I’ll write this piece admitting that I’m not as politically or current event-ly fluent and active as I used to be, like to be or know I should be. I’ll get there soon enough. Soon I’ll genuinely work on “being the change.” 

First, I must figure out how to just “be.”

Statement Correspondent Lilly Dickman can be reached at ldickman@umich.edu