Crew Commentary

Handprint Thinking

Jon Biemer


Many of our efforts to reduce our impact on the Earth have limitations. We keep running into old habits, family priorities, clunky infrastructure and a sense that we just can’t get good enough.


There is an answer to this conundrum. I call it Handprint Thinking.



Decades ago, I read a book on creativity. It made a profound point. If you move beyond problem-solving to creativity, you free up a world of possibilities. You are no longer constrained by the box in which the problem was created. You can reach for a kind of success that goes beyond fixing what is wrong. Entrepreneurs prove this principle regularly. The answer to a difficult-to-manage lock system on the Erie Canal was… a railroad.


The Handprint is a symbol for creativity. Simply put, it is the good we do. At a deeper level, it is the impact of our actions. At its most profound level, a Handprint can be a genuine system changer.


The impact of a single Handprint is theoretically unlimited and it can be self-renewing. One of my favorite Handprints is planting a tree. It requires a modest effort to find a seedling, put it in the ground, and water it for a year. From there on the tree grows on its own and eventually reseeds itself. The reforestation of Ethiopia is an example of what is possible. Which introduces the concept of the Collective Handprint.


Effective outcomes usually require many hands working together. The individual can take credit for his or her part. Biologists, fundraisers, donors and truck drivers are all needed – in addition to tree planters.


When we try to quantify the impact of our Handprint, we can get bogged down. Over what timeframe do I claim carbon-sequestration for a tree? Might it get cut down before then? Or let’s say I am part of the planning for a public transit system. I’m one of several folks who advocate for a critical stop where more people can catch the train. What is my part in the eco-benefits of the whole? My way of looking at it: just count the trees. Just count the substantial improvements to the transit system. That is Handprint Thinking.


Footprint Thinking, on the other hand, measures the tons of CO2 that a transit system emits and saves. It concerns itself with the relative impact of gasoline versus electric cars. A carbon-pricing system requires very careful Footprint thinking. That is useful from a business or policy perspective. (Though putting such a pricing system in place would be a Handprint.)


Footprint thinking and Handprint thinking are complementary, not opposites. Our feet and hands do different jobs. That said, we need more inspired hands – and more Handprint Thinking.




Jon Biemer is the author of the upcoming book, From Footprints to Handprints: Creating Sustainability to Heal Our Planet. He is an Organizational Development consultant for businesses and non-profits, doing business as Creating Sustainability. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Check out his website at www.JonBiemer.com