EarthTalk: I read that a single child born
in the U.S. has a greater effect on the environment than
a dozen children born in a developing country. Can you explain
—Josh C., via e-mail
less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S.
uses a third of the world’s paper, a quarter
of the oil, coal and aluminum, and 19 percent of
the copper. The U.S. ranks highest by a considerable
margin in most consumer categories as well.
is well known that Americans consume far more natural resources
and live much less sustainably than people from any other
large country of the world. “A child born in the United
States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage
over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born
in Brazil,” reports the Sierra Club’s Dave Tilford,
adding that the average American will drain as many resources
as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and
services than someone from China.
cites a litany of sobering statistics showing just how profligate
Americans have been in using and abusing natural resources.
For example, between 1900 and 1989 U.S. population tripled
while its use of raw materials grew by a factor of 17. “With
less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third
of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s
oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum,
and 19 percent of the copper,” he reports. “Our
per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products,
fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of
people living in the developing world.”
adds that the U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories
by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations.
To wit, American fossil fuel consumption is double that
of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half
times that of the average Japanese. Meanwhile, Americans
account for only five percent of the world’s population
but create half of the globe’s solid waste.
love of the private automobile constitutes a large part
of their poor ranking. The National Geographic Society’s
annual Greendex analysis of global consumption habits finds
that Americans are least likely of all people to use public
transportation—only seven percent make use of transit
options for daily commuting. Likewise, only one in three
Americans walks or bikes to their destinations, as opposed
to three-quarters of Chinese. While China is becoming the
world’s leader in total consumption of some commodities
(coal, copper, etc.), the U.S. remains the per capita consumption
leader for most resources.
National Geographic’s Greendex found that American
consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in regard to
sustainable behavior. Furthermore, the study found that
U.S. consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty
about the impact they have on the environment, yet they
are near to top of the list in believing that individual
choices could make a difference.
those with the lightest environmental footprint are also
the most likely to feel both guilty and disempowered. “In
what may be a major disconnect between perception and behavior,
the study also shows that consumers who feel the guiltiest
about their impact—those in China, India and Brazil—actually
lead the pack in sustainable consumer choices,” says
National Geographic’s Terry Garcia, who coordinates
the annual Greendex study. “That’s despite Chinese
and Indian consumers also being among the least confident
that individual action can help the environment.”
can discover how they stack up by taking a survey on National
Geographic’s Greendex website. But brace yourself
if you are a typical American: You might not like what you
find out about yourself.
Club’s “Sustainable Consumption”;
Geographic Society’s Greendex.
EarthTalk: I heard of an effort to save what
are being called “BioGems.” What are BioGems
and what is being done about them?
—Larry Dibner, Tallahassee, FL
Natural Resources Defense Council launched its BioGems
Initiative in an effort to safeguard special places
that face an imminent threat of destruction, from
pristine coastlines to ancient forests to unspoiled
habitats and the wildlife that thrive in them. Pictured:
a Yellowstone Buffalo in winter.
© Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock
a term created by the Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC), describe the most endangered natural treasures around
the Americas. NRDC selects special places in our hemisphere
that face an imminent threat of destruction, from pristine
coastlines that could become industrial ports to ancient
forests that could be stripped of trees to unspoiled wildlife
habitats that could be sacrificed to oil and gas drilling.
“Our imperiled BioGems are irreplaceable remnants
of wilderness that curb global warming, preserve biodiversity
and provide sanctuary for rare and extraordinary wildlife,
from threatened polar bears to endangered gray whales,”
its BioGems Initiative back in 2001 as a way to harness
the power of online citizen activism to help save threatened
lands. The group mobilizes its 1.3 million members and online
activists “to bring overwhelming pressure to bear
on governments and companies bent on industrializing the
world’s last wild places.”
of a little attention, NRDC has enlisted the help of several
celebrity partners in championing the cause of saving the
BioGems. Robert Redford is spearheading NRDC’s campaign
to keep the Polar Bear Seas safe from oil drilling, while
Pierce Brosnan is leading the charge to try to bring an
end to the commercial slaughter of whales. The group has
also brought the star power of Leonardo Di Caprio, Paul
McCartney, Alec Baldwin, Seth Myers, Jason Mraz and others
to bear for the sake of saving BioGems.
BioGems Defenders and our local partners on the ground have
scored dozens of historic victories for the environment,
proving that individuals can be a powerful force for conservation,”
reports NRDC. Some of the campaign’s recent successes
include: helping to persuade Iceland to call off its fin
whale hunt for the second year in a row; protecting the
last 340 beluga whales of Alaska’s Cook Inlet through
filing a lawsuit; helping secure a breakthrough agreement
for wild buffalo that allows them to roam outside Yellowstone
National Park during the harsh winter months; and winning
in court over trophy hunters keen on stripping the polar
bear from its endangered status.
is focusing on a half dozen primary BioGems campaigns: keeping
Shell out of the American Arctic (unfortunately the company’s
drills just went in); stopping Big Oil’s attack on
whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and up and down the
Atlantic seaboard; stopping the pipeline from Alberta’s
tar sands to Texas refineries (Obama has kyboshed the pipeline
for now); stopping the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska;
and saving British Columbia’s Spirit Bear coast.
get involved by customizing and sending pre-written e-mail
messages to decision makers who are key to the particular
locales in need of protection. NRDC will also gladly take
donations of any size toward the BioGem campaign of the
giver’s choosing. Of course, telling your friends,
neighbors, co-workers and family members what you have learned
about the potential despoliation of natural treasures, many
in our own backyard, is also a big help.