March 23, 2023

Man versus the Snail in the minimalistic race!

By A A Wisley….


Recently, I was leafing through the anthology of articles collected by Greta Thunberg in her new book on climate change.  It is not a gripping page-turner, as a whole, but the individual items contain many thought-provoking and astonishing facts and views.

One nugget, that, at first, I thought totally improbable, demonstrates how we have come to the current climate and environmental crunch. It was the remark that a “typical American household contains around 300,000 individual items”.  That is not a typo, it really was three hundred thousand items.  We all know that Americans are the world’s top consumers but just how do you get that number of things into a house?

I started counting my own “items”, anxious to prove, to myself, my good environmental responsibility and frugality:-

Furniture: 20 items, mainly wood so, providing a long-term carbon store. Pride in myself swelled inversely to the small size of this inventory.  Looking more closely, though, I saw that each item of furniture was made up of many bits including metal screws, bars, runners, rubber straps, foam filling, cloth covers, and so on.  Whilst I did not count them, the number of individual items that went into making my 20 items of furniture probably exceeded 1,000, 50 times more than I originally thought.

Fabrics, such as bedding, table linen, clothes, and curtains came to a surprisingly large number even after excluding all the numerous buttons, zips, hooks, and curtain rings. Plates, pans, cutlery, and glasses well exceeded 200 items. Books, CDs, and DVDs all added up quickly.

Counting electrical stuff was exceedingly hard. Even a simple lamp consists of a plug, wire, holder, bulb, switch, and shade and these, in turn, are made from smaller pieces. Just how many components are needed to make a TV, mobile phone, computer, and other complex gadgets we fill the house with now? I’ve no idea but likely thousands or tens of thousands?  I won’t mention the car!

The house also encompasses the garden shed which shelters a surprisingly large number of items. The obvious ones are spades, brushes, blowers, electrical tools (with their many components), garden furniture, and barbecues. Other things lurk in cobwebby corners. Oh, I must not forget all the screws, nails, rawlplugs, drills, and bits of iron or plastic-mongery (if there is such a word).  The items here add up to their thousands too.

One thing that I had almost forgotten is the house itself. Mine is made of concrete beams and light-weight blocks, hundreds of them. These are covered with a thousand, or more, of tiles. The house is fitted with dozens of sockets, hundreds of metres of copper cable and plastic pipework, cabinets, and cupboards. You get the idea. I won’t go on. It is obvious that the number of individual things in, or making up,  my house must exceed 100,000 and, quite possibly, several times more.

Why is this important?

I think that there is not even one thing in my house, not the smallest screw nor scrap of paper tissue, that has not been the cause of carbon emissions or environmental disturbance. Everything, yes everything, including the wooden items, is the product of extraction, industrial processing, transport, and distribution, each step of which consumes energy and, one way, or another, depletes the environment. Even fresh vegetables in the fridge come with a substantial carbon footprint from farming, transport, and storage.


Trying to put this into a meaningful context I sought to compare my personal CO2/environmental footprint with that of other creatures sharing this Earth. Gorillas are our genetic cousins and are of similar size but they maintain no fixed abode and do not, so far as I know, carry around with them a box of useful utensils. They have no household belongings to count, and no responsibility for rapacious extraction or for CO2 emissions.  Accordingly, I discounted them along with birds, fish, whales, and insects.  Ants and bees form colonies and do construct their own “cities” but, I felt, these were not exactly comparable to an individual’s home. Maybe I will look at that again later. Of all the creatures I thought did maintain for themselves a permanent household the one at the top of my list was the snail.

What items go to make up the snail’s household? There were only two things that I could see; the snail itself and its shell. I omit the snail in this calculation, just as I have omitted myself from my household inventory. That leaves just the shell. Just one, solitary, item compared to my tens of thousands.  A snail grows its shell from keratin ( a complex chain of carbon atoms) and calcium carbonate.  In other words, the snail’s home is a carbon capture mechanism, one which can outlasts the snail itself by several or, indeed, many years.

The Man versus Snail comparison is humiliating. Every single thing that I own has been the cause of CO2 emissions and of environmental damage. By contrast, 100% of a Snail’s possessions absorb CO2  and its lifestyle is also harmonious with the environment by recycling organic matter. Every creature, save us, is part of a cycle of use and reuse, of recycling everything they consume.

I’ll never be able to look into a gastropod’s waving eye again without feeling some admiration for it. It teaches me that I do not need all those 300,000 items and that what I do acquire must be recycled.  It is a snail trail to be followed.

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