Footprint: Stepping Lightly



The conference venues at which the COP26 summit is being held have received a very low energy efficiency rating. This contributes, as does the travel of the world leaders and protesters gathering in Glasgow, to what we familiarly call our “carbon footprint” – the consumption of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases that expresses the largely destructive human impact on the world. In fact, there is a proliferation of on-line calculators to help each one of us determine our participation in this. But that alone is not the only use of the term footprint. Today’s environmental anxieties coalesce around ecological footprints, urban footprints, and digital footprints, all of which measure in different ways the consequences and effects of human existence on this planet. But what are the implications of making the human foot bear not only the weight of the individual but the responsibility of the planet? What kind of urban body is attached to such a foot?

The footprint is one of the fundamental artifacts of walking. As both metaphor and material imprint, the footprint signifies mobility and occupation, inquiry and imperialism, absence and presence, trace and impact. The migration of the footprint well in front of the sign of the walker into a primary metaphor for our times raises questions about the ways in which histories are used to guide our steps into the future. As it marches forward, the footprint seems to get less capacious and more consumptive. Even as we find the image of footprints on a stretch of sand tranquil and dreamy, we worry about our carbon footprint and its implication for the future of the planet. The Covid pandemic with its strictures on movement produced a demonstrable reduction in carbon emissions, although predicted to be no more than a pause; simultaneously, there was a renewed interest in the movements possible at a local level such as biking and walking.

This paper, written as a series of narrative itineraries, draws upon an ongoing multidisciplinary research project to frame a series of explorations on the contradictory forensics of the footprint. What can we learn through the cultural and material histories of the footprint and the ways in which it has been deployed? What are the implications of the multivalent and ambiguous ways in which the footprint surfaces? Has the term become too loose to salvage any political promise? Or can we still draw from other lineages of the footprint following in whose footsteps promise different horizons? Is it still possible to tread lightly?

Radhika Subramaniam (Parsons School of Design/The New School)


Radhika Subramaniam is a writer and curator with an interdisciplinary practice. She explores the poetics and politics of crises and surprises, particularly human-nonhuman relationships, cities and crowds, walking, and art. She is Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Parsons School of Design/The New School, NY, USA.