Thirty-nine years ago this month, an Ohio man stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered these words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

At the moment he uttered that famous phrase, it was broadcast to 450 million listeners worldwide. On July 21, 1969, nearly a third of all humans took a breather for a few minutes to document this momentous occasion that left a footprint on history.

Today, the idea of “footprint” takes an interesting twist. And trust me, more than 450 million people are paying attention to it. I’m talking about the issue of climate change and the international response to developing programs to monitor and reduce mankind’s impact upon the environment. I’m talkng about the creation of an envionmental currency that is being called, “The Carbon Footprint.”

People have been talking about carbon footprints for some time now, and we’ve even referenced it here in Contracting Business on numerous occasions. But I don’t think we’ve actually defined it and how it will change not only the world we live in, but the world we work in as well.

So what is this footprint of which I speak? According to one of my favorite web sources, Wikipedia, carbon footprint is a “measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide (CO2). It is meant to be useful for individuals and organizations to conceptualize their personal (or organizational) impact in contributing to global warming.”

This definition boils down to the total amount of carbon dioxide attributable to the actions of an individual (mainly through their energy use) over a period of one year. The term owes its origins to the idea that a footprint is what has been left behind as a result of the individual’s activities (Thank-you Neil Armstrong).

Carbon footprints can either consider only direct emissions (typically from energy used in the home and in transport, including travel by cars, airplanes, rail and other public transport), or can also include indirect emissions (including CO2 emissions as a result of goods and services consumed).

Though in its infancy, we are beginning to see carbon footprint values being bought and sold. For example, if you GoogleTM “carbon footprint,” you’ll see an entire list of websites that have calculators in them. Typically these sites ask you questions about the fuels you use to heat and cool your home, about air travel for the year, car, truck, and motorcycle travel for the year, public transportation use, and lifestyle choices, then calculates the tonnage of CO2 you produce. Some calculators provide tips on how to reduce your CO2 output, including donations you can make to offset your carbon footprint.

There are even sites where you can trade offsets you may already have to others who need them. As I said earlier, the carbon footprint could be the first step in the creation of an international environmental currency.

Here’s the bottom line — climate change isn’t a fad or a movement. It’s a moment in history that may be the turning point where all of us traveling on the great spaceship Earth get serious about environmental stewardship. It shouldn’t be focused on the Al Gore world of global warming or even Matt Michel’s potential world of global cooling. It’s about taking care of our planet without going overboard and negatively impacting our ability to create wealth.

The carbon footprint may be the impetus of getting all of our attention and creating an environment where we all work together for a good common goal. Like that moment when Neil Armstrong changed everything as he stepped onto the surface of the moon, the idea of environmental stewardship through measurement of our collective carbon footprint may be our legacy, our permanent footprint in the sand.