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Commentary Last Updated: May 12th, 2008 - 00:40:14

Spoiled Americans fail the green test
By Mary Shaw
Online Journal Contributing Writer

May 12, 2008, 00:10

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A recent National Geographic survey ranked the environmental impact of consumer habits and lifestyles in 14 countries.

The U.S. ranked last.

People in Brazil, India, China, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Spain, Japan, France, and Canada were judged to be more environmentally responsible than Americans. Yes, you read that right. India. China. Mexico. Et cetera. All more proactively concerned than we are about saving this planet for our children and our grandchildren.

But this should come as no surprise. Whether we can blame it on ignorance, apathy, arrogance, or just laziness depends on the person, but I see it every day. Americans talk about global warming and they sound concerned. But that's as far as it goes. Talk is cheap. And so they continue to be part of the problem.

They grumble about high gasoline prices even as they continue to drive their big, bloated SUVs. They must have their status symbols.

They see themselves as heroes for recycling case after case of empty Aquafina bottles each week, perhaps not knowing (or perhaps not caring) that the production and transportation of their bottled water more than cancels the environmental benefit of their recycling. And, ironically, they don't seem to realize (or care) that many brands of bottled water actually come from the same source as public tap water. If you pay for it, it must be better than the free stuff. They must have their status symbols.

They congratulate themselves for turning down the thermostat when the weather gets chilly, but they use a wood-burning fireplace to compensate, perhaps not knowing (or perhaps not caring) about the fact that fireplaces contribute to pollution (and human respiratory problems). They must have their status symbols.

So I decided to do some first-hand research into the American consumer psyche. I asked an acquaintance why she clings to her SUV despite the soaring gas prices and despite the global warming crisis. "I like being up high when I drive," she explained.

So that's it. That is her priority.

And, when I tried to appeal to her sense of survival and responsibility, she rolled her eyes and drove away.

And I think this so perfectly illustrates the problem: Americans are spoiled. Americans like things the way they are accustomed to. They like to have what they want, and they don't want to sacrifice. They've never had to sacrifice much, and change is discomforting. And they don't want anyone suggesting that they change their ways.

In most cases, it is not a malicious thing. It's just the way it has always been.

And so here we are. Last place. Below India. Below China. Below Mexico.

And it's going to take more than a movie and a rock concert to make a difference.

But there is a good side. With the high price of gasoline, people are driving less, and SUV sales are down. People will change their habits when their wallets are affected. But it will take much, much more, and our elected officials must do their part.

We need strong incentives for the development of renewable energy alternatives.

We need to increase and improve the public transportation options in many of our cities and in rural areas. And we need to make those alternative modes of transportation comfortable enough that people will want to use them instead of cars.

And we need buy-in from the business community, be it be voluntary or imposed through fines and regulations.

If Brazil can do it, we can do it. But only if we care enough to create change.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail:

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