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From footprints to handprints: clutching at straws?

A couple of years ago TIME magazine rated Handprints among the “10 ideas that are changing your life”. This statement would tend to suggest that either your life is pretty stagnant or that maybe it is worth examining what the handprint hype is about. Has it changed our lives?

Handprints are the converse of footprints. Where footprints carry negative connotations – generally about the burdens that humans place on “the environment” – handprints exude positivity. Take for example the narrative of the Positive Handprints Foundation. It assures us that handprints are all about the five Ps of sustainability (yes five) – people profit planet purpose and passion.

Such motherhood statements might lack substance but they are certainly upbeat (and strong on alliteration). Going green might be fun after all – especially when the process is infused with social media.

So enter Handprinter.org with its 1987 likes on Facebook and the humble mission of healing the planet. Handprinter.org was founded by Greg Norris who has been teaching life cycle assessment at Harvard since the late 1990s. He sought to address the fundamental negativity that is (unsurprisingly) associated with most narratives about industrial society’s destructive impact on planet earth and what that might mean for its current suite of inhabitants.

Norris detected a growing sentiment among his students that the world would have been better off had they not been born. The problem with the conventional environmental narrative is its inherent negativity. Footprints are a case in point because you can only reduce your negative impact. But as humans we apparently need to feel good about ourselves. Handprints allow for the quantification of the good you do – and as your handprint outgrows your footprint you become Net Positive.

Nice, but how? Well presumably because you will manage what you measure. The growing popularity of “self-quantification” suggests that humans are increasingly seeking self-actualization through numbers. If you measure your good deeds you will “manage” them better by doing them more.

Handprinter “measures the positive impacts we can make, simply by changing the way we do things, at home, and at work”. Handprinter’s beta software asks a few questions about how you live your life, calculates your footprint, and then offers suggestions on how you might shrink it: “things like installing a low-flow showerhead, or carpooling”. Improvements – relative to business as usual – that you initiate in your own life or in the lives of other people or businesses are counted towards your handprint.

And best of all, Handprinter lets you spread your ideas and actions around the world, see their progress, and measure them. When you refer your friends to Handprinter, and when their friends sign on, their handprints become part of yours. Inspire enough people, and your handprint eventually outweighs your footprint.

Although this sounds a little bit like a pyramid investment scheme Handprinter.org claims to be based solidly on social life cycle assessment (S-LCA), an assessment technique that assesses the social and socio-economic impacts of products, processes, organizations or individuals. Handprinter suggests such “planet healing” enterprises as going around the neighborhood and inflating car tires to their correct pressures and then banking the efficiency gains in your handprint. This really is the low hanging fruit.

No wonder that TIME was so effusive about the life changing potential of handprints!

But leaving aside my facetiousness for a brief moment, the concept of handprints is not totally an intellectual dead end. The LCA framework which buttresses foot and handprints develops a multidimensional picture of “performance” providing a powerful means for examining the social and ecological impact of people and things. Once understood, these impacts might then be ameliorated.

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