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
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
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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.