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MAKE BELIEVE ECONOMY!
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: November 10, 2012 Comment
THE Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. It just failed to unseat a president presiding over one of the longest stretches of mass unemployment since the Great Depression. In a year when the Senate map offered them numerous opportunities, the Republicans managed to lose two seats instead.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
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In part, these failures can be attributed to the country’s changing demographics. Reliable Republican constituencies — whites, married couples and churchgoers — are shrinking as a share of the electorate. Democratic-leaning constituencies — minorities, recent immigrants, the unmarried and unchurched — are growing, and voting in larger numbers than in the past.
But Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides. The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today. Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks. Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation. Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate. Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone.
Both shifts, demographic and economic, must be addressed if Republicans are to find a way back to the majority. But the temptation for the party’s elites will be to fasten on the demographic explanation, because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message.
This explains why many high-profile Republicans responded to last Tuesday’s defeat by embracing some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Fox News’s Sean Hannity, a reliable weather vane, publicly converted to the cause of comprehensive immigration reform last week. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer argued that if the Republican Party embraced amnesty and nominated Marco Rubio, it would win the Hispanic vote outright in 2016, solving its demographic problem in one swoop. Judging from the noises emanating from John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the party’s Congressional leadership agrees.
No doubt a more moderate tone on immigration would help Republicans. But the idea of amnesty as a Latino-winning electoral silver bullet is a fantasy.
First, Hispanics are not single-issue voters: they can be alienated by nativism, but they can’t just be won by the promise of green cards and open borders. (After Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote fell in the next presidential election.) Latino voters are not, as conservative strategists often claim, “natural” Republican voters — notwithstanding their (moderate) social conservatism, they tend to lean leftward on economic issues, and to see government more as an ally than a foe. They can be wooed, gradually, if Republicans address their aspirations and anxieties, but they aren’t going to be claimed in one legislative pander.
At the same time, a Republican Party that moves too far leftward on immigration risks alienating its white working-class supporters, an easily disillusioned constituency whose support the party cannot take for granted. These voters already suspect that Republican elites don’t have their interests at heart: Mitt Romney lost last week because he underperformed among minority voters, but also because a large number of working-class whites apparently stayed home. If the party’s only post-2012 adjustment is to embrace amnesty, they aren’t likely to turn out in 2016 either.
What the party really needs, much more than a better identity-politics pitch, is an economic message that would appeal across demographic lines — reaching both downscale white voters turned off by Romney’s Bain Capital background and upwardly mobile Latino voters who don’t relate to the current G.O.P. fixation on upper-bracket tax cuts.
As the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen writes, it should be possible for Republicans to oppose an overweening and intrusive state while still recognizing that “government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream.” It should be possible for the party to reform and streamline government while also addressing middle-class anxieties about wages, health care, education and more.
The good news is that such an agenda already exists, at least in embryonic form. Thanks to four years of intellectual ferment, Republicans seeking policy renewal have a host of thinkers and ideas to draw from: Luigi Zingales and Jim Pethokoukis on crony capitalism, Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein on tax policy, Frederick Hess on education reform, James Capretta on alternatives to Obamacare, and many more.
The bad news is that unlike a pander on immigration, a new economic agenda probably wouldn’t be favorably received by the party’s big donors, who tend to be quite happy with the Republican Party’s current positioning.
But after spending billions of those donors’ dollars with nothing to show for it, perhaps Republicans should seek a different path: one in which they raise a little less money but win a few more votes.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.
Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.
- Victor Lebow, 1955
Retail analyst Victor Lebow’s statement might sound crass today, perhaps even a bit quaint in its unabashed promotion of materialism and waste. The words ring with a certain post-World War II naiveté-an unexamined faith in personal and spiritual fulfillment achieved via an endless stream of cheap and disposable consumer products.
If the words seem outdated, the message is not. The latter part of the 20th century was spent largely following Victor Lebow’s recipe for prosperity and fulfillment. Since the industrial revolution began in the 1800s, the world has been on an unprecedented consumption binge. Since 1950 alone, the world’s people have consumed more goods and services than the combined total of all humans who ever walked the planet before us.
From a certain, limited perspective, Lebow was on target. By making conspicuous consumption our way of life, we have kept an “enormously productive economy” running full tilt. Unprecedented levels of consumption have powered unparalleled economic growth, with predictable material benefits. In industrial countries, the standard of living has risen so that items considered luxuries a few decades ago are common among the middle class today. Nonmaterial benefits have accompanied this growth, as well. Life expectancy is higher, and more people than ever before in the industrial world have adequate food, housing, running water, warmth, electricity and transportation, as well as many other comforts that make life easier.
From a broader perspective, this model of growth has been devastating. Twentieth century consumption patterns sparked overwhelming levels of environmental deterioration. If allowed to continue unchecked, the dismantling of the natural world will have catastrophic effects. It will almost certainly negate the material gains derived from accelerated consumerism, and may undermine our ability to survive on the planet. The problem with Victor Lebow’s vision of a better life through higher levels of consumption is that it leaves out two very important parts of the equation: Where does all this stuff come from? Where does it go when we are done with it?
Every consumer product comes from the Earth and returns to it in one form or another. We have increased our supply of material goods and services at the direct expense of natural services. Our current state of affairs is summed up by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins in the 1999 book, Natural Capitalism:
The industrial revolution that gave rise to modern capitalism greatly expanded the possibilities for the material development of humankind. It continues to do so today, but at a severe price. Since the mid-eighteenth century, more of nature has been destroyed than in all prior history. While industrial systems have reached pinnacles of success, able to muster and accumulate human-made capital on vast levels, natural capital, on which civilization depends to create economic prosperity, is rapidly declining, and the rate of loss is increasing proportionate to gains in material well being.
Borrowing from the Future
For the first time in history, humanity must face the risk of unintentionally destroying the foundations of life on Earth. The global scientific consensus is that if the current levels of environmental deterioration continue, the delicate life-sustaining qualities of this planet will collapse.
– Daniel Sitarz, editor, Agenda 21 (1994)
The United Nations’ Human Development Report 1998 (UNDP Report) states that “Runaway growth in consumption in the past fifty years is putting strains on the environment never before seen.” Forests are shrinking, fish stocks are declining, soil degradation and desertification are rising, and pollution and waste are being generated at a far greater rate than the Earth can absorb. Even our fresh water supply-perhaps our most precious commodity-is being pushed beyond the limit. Since 1950, withdrawals have nearly tripled, and many feel that water scarcity will be a major environmental issue in the 21st century.
The same year that the UNDP Report cautioned that our consumption levels were straining environmental support systems, the World Wild Fund for Nature published its own Living Planet Report, an annual index of planetary resources. Examining a quarter century of data, the report concluded that global ecosystems are in sharp decline. From 1970 to 1995, we lost more than thirty percent of the resources that sustain life on the planet. During that period, freshwater ecosystems declined by 50 percent, while marine ecosystems declined 30 percent and the world’s forests declined 10 percent. Annually, the loss in natural forest cover amounted to an area the size of England and Wales combined.
The Living Planet Report is only the latest of a growing body of research linking excessive consumption to environmental degradation. Many vital resources are being destroyed and degraded at a rate far exceeding their natural rate of renewal. Overwhelming evidence-from a host of scientific sources-suggest that we are, in the language of the UNDP report, tearing “great holes on the web of life.” Some of the evidence of this diminishment is as follows:
Fifty one percent of the freshwater animal species of the world are declining in number.
A recent survey found one in four vertebrate species to be in sharp decline or facing serious pressure from human activities.
One of every eight known plant species is threatened with extinction or is nearly extinct.
One in ten tree species-some 8,750 of the 80,000 to 100,000 tree species known to science-are threatened with extinction.
The overall rate of extinction is estimated to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it would be naturally, and appears to be increasing. The last time such a mass extinction is believed to have occurred was 65 million years ago, when a dramatic shift in global climate patterns ended the age of the dinosaurs.
Global forest cover is shrinking by 30 million acres a year. Causes include human-induced fires, agricultural expansion, logging, road-building, and exotic insect infestations.
Vast destruction of the world’s forests is contributing to the spread of the world’s deserts, increasing the loss of biodiversity and hampering the ability of the Earth’s atmosphere to cleanse itself.
Some 58 percent of the world’s coral reefs and one third of all fish species may be at risk from human activities.
Fisheries are collapsing. About a quarter of stocks worldwide are currently depleted or in danger of depletion. Another 44 percent are being fished at their biological limit.
Massive erosion-related to intensive farming practices and deforestation-is causing a rapid loss of topsoil and with it a potentially drastic drop in the ability to produce food for the world’s people.
In September of 1998, the BBC, citing data from NASA, reported the hole in the ozone over Antarctica had reached record proportions: 10 million square miles, roughly three times the size of Australia.
1998 was the hottest year recorded since record keeping began in the 1860s. According to scientific evidence, it was the hottest year in the past one thousand years. Seven of the ten warmest years recorded occurred between 1990 and 1999. The dominant view among scientists is that a significant portion of this warming is the result of industrial society’s emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
The common thread through these environmental crises is unsustainable consumption. From mining, refining, transport, manufacture, use, and disposal of goods, humans today-individually and collectively-are asking more of the planet than ever before. The impact has been staggering. Quite literally, we are living beyond our ecological means, destroying the natural world in the process.
These trends should not, however, be taken as evidence of a species blindly overrunning its habitat in its ever-expanding need for resources, doomed to an inevitable and painful end as it eats its way out of house and home. On the contrary, humans could live quite well within the Earth’s limits. But to do so-and reverse current trends-it is imperative that we cultivate a greater understanding and a deeper respect for our place in the world and the true costs of our consumer behavior.
Population and Consumption
Three factors especially influence humankind’s ecological impact on the planet: the total number of people, the level of consumption practiced by each individual, and the technological efficiency employed to provide each unit of consumption. The interaction between these factors has often been expressed by the simplified equation: “impact equals population times affluence times technology,” or I = PAT.
In broad terms, the population and affluence components of the equation have increased during the last century, while technology is less easy to categorize. In many areas, the technology component of the I=PAT equation is “shrinking”-that is, we are becoming more efficient in providing units of consumption at a smaller ecological price. In some fields, however, technological innovation has been aimed at extracting resources at greater speed and volume rather than more efficiently from an ecological standpoint-thus leading to an increase in “T” and greater impact.
The number of humans on the planet rose dramatically during the 20th century. Examining population trends over the past few centuries provides perspective on current population growth: In the mid-17th century, world population stood at one-half billion. Population doubled in less than a century, passing the one billion mark in the early 1800s. By the mid-1920s, we had doubled again, reaching two billion. Over the next six decades, we had gained another three billion, bringing the total number of people on Earth to five billion people by the mid-1980s. In late 1999, we passed the six billion mark and were increasing in number at a rate of one billion every twelve years or so.
By simple principles of mathematics and physical space, this exponential population growth must cease. In 1974, a demographer calculated that at then-current growth rates, within seven centuries only one square foot of land would be available per person. In fact, the growth rate is already slowing down considerably. Globally, woman today are having half the number of children (roughly three, on average) than they did in 1960.
However, the momentum of the past century and the vast number of young people of child-bearing age will insure that population will continue to rise into the 21st century. (A slower growth rate applied to a larger base continues to add to the total population.) The United Nations projects that world population will expand to between 7.3 to 10.7 billion by 2050. Even at the low end, this represents a nearly fifteenfold increase over the population of the mid-1700s.
In the industrial world, population growth has been slowing down for several decades. In the United States, the fastest growing industrialized country, natural increase is about 0.6 percent a year (though total population growth, including immigration, is around 1.0 percent). Today, over ninety-five percent of the total population growth is occurring instead in the developing world, where public health advances have contributed to lower death rates at all ages. In these regions, population is increasing anywhere from 1.6 percent to 2.8 percent per year.
In developing regions, where life exists closer to the margin, the pursuit of immediate sustenance as opposed to long-term sustainability is taking a huge toll on some the planet’s richest centers of biodiversity. Tropical forests around the globe have fallen victim not only to extensive logging for wood products, but also to burning in order to clear land for subsistence farming. In 1997, satellite data showed a 50 percent increase over the previous year in the number of fires set by farmers to clear land for cultivation and pasture. About one-third of the fires are set in virgin forest areas, wiping out some of the world’s richest and most important animal and plant habitats.
The food needs of a burgeoning population will be met primarily through increased production on existing croplands-but at a price. Though global agriculture has made remarkable progress in keeping ahead of population growth, progress has come at the expense of ecological systems. Intensive farming practices precipitate extensive erosion-contributing to losses of 12 to 15 million acres of topsoil a year. High yield crop varieties introduced in the 20th century require tremendous influxes of pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers. One dramatic casualty of this practice: In the Gulf of Mexico, a several thousand square mile oxygen-depleted “dead zone” appears every spring and summer at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This zone-within which marine life cannot survive-is caused by algal blooms traced to an influx of nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers. A large percentage of this comes from farms as far away as the Midwestern corn belt. In 1999, the dead zone reached record proportions: 7,700 square miles-roughly the size of New Jersey.
Though population growth has moderated, the sheer number of humans on the planet will continue to stress planetary resources well into the next century. In addition, the burden of population growth is magnified several fold by the fact that, on average, each individual today is consuming far more than an individual of 50 years ago.
Worldwide, from the 1950s to the 1990s, per capita consumption of timber, steel, copper, meat, and energy doubled. Per capita aluminum consumption has increased sevenfold. Consumption of synthetic items drawn from natural resources has increased as well: per capita cement consumption has quadrupled, use of plastic quintupled. The vast majority of consumption and subsequent ecological harm can be traced to consumer behavior not in the developing world, but in the industrial world.
The consumer class
To visualize world consumption patterns, it is helpful to divide human population into three distinct classes: the poor, the middle class, and the “consumer class.” The poorest fifth of world population-over one billion people-live in abject poverty, surviving on less than a dollar per day. The vast middle class-60 percent of world population-have most of their basic food, shelter and water needs met, live in modest homes with lights, radios, and sometimes a refrigerator and a clothes washer, but own few material possessions and virtually no luxury items. Individuals in this group earn between $700 and $7,500 per person per year, very low by the standards of the industrial world.
The remaining 20 percent are the “consumer class.” Included in this class are most North Americans, West Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, and the oil sheikdoms of the Middle East, as well as smaller percentages of the population of other regions. This 20 percent is responsible for the vast majority of ecological impacts associated with consumption.
The difference between consumption as practiced in the industrial world and consumption in the developing world is rather astounding: the one fifth of global population living in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of private consumption expenditures. The poorest fifth account for a little over 1 percent.
The average American consumes about fifty-three times more goods and services than someone from China. The United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 22 percent of fossil fuel consumption, 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and 33 percent of paper and plastic use. 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. He or she will drain as many resources as thirty-five natives of India. In fact, comparing statistics on actual resource use as opposed to population numbers has led some to suggest that the most overpopulated country on earth -in terms of impact- is the United States.
The United States is not alone among industrial nations, however. Overall, the environmental effects of increased consumer behavior among the world’s richest 20 percent have been enormous: “The gaping divide in material consumption between the fortunate and unfortunate stands out starkly in their impacts on the natural world… The consumer society’s exploitation of resources threatens to exhaust, poison, or unalterably disfigure forests, soils, water, and air.” Even more troubling, there is a vast middle class waiting to jump on the consumer bandwagon.
Chasing the dream
There are good reasons for concern about the environmental impacts of 5 billion people consuming at the level of the developed countries of Europe and North America. Given high economic growth rates in many parts of the world, as well as the rapid spread of electronic media, advertising, and consumer goods, we must ask what kind of consuming future we can expect in areas that are now constrained by poverty and isolation. If everyone develops a desire for the Western high-consumption lifestyle, the relentless growth in consumption, energy use, waste, and emissions may be disastrous.
- National Academy of Sciences, Environmentally Significant Consumption (1997)
The world’s “middle class”-the roughly three-fifths of world population between the consumer class and the world’s poorest citizens-understandably have their sights set on a higher standard of living. From afar, they are pursuing the American Dream with gusto. All over the world, people surf the Internet, watch American TV shows, read American magazines, and are exposed to American advertising. For these people, “development” means more than just electricity, telephones, and running water. It has come to mean having what Americans have: large living quarters, multiple cars, appliances, cable television, stereos, and other luxuries:
The Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 1991 that construction crews in Indonesia “work day and night to erect vast shopping malls, air conditioned marble labyrinths where almost any local or imported luxury can be purchased-at a price.”
By the early 1990s in India, sales of consumer items were exploding-from automobiles to televisions to frozen dinners. The Wall Street Journal reported that “The traditional conservative Indian who believes in modesty and savings is gradually giving way to a new generation that thinks as freely as it spends.”
From 1976 to 1996, China’s total red meat consumption quintupled from less than 8 million tons to 42 million tons per year. If each Chinese consumed as much beef as the average American, the feedlots would need 343 million tons of grain – roughly the entire U.S. grain harvest.
From Thailand to Brazil to Eastern Europe, the number of cars on the road-and the number of roads-are escalating rapidly. In 1996, more new cars were sold in Asia than in Western Europe and North America combined. In Mexico, from 1960 to 1990 the auto fleet increased by over 1,000 percent. In Brazil during that same period, the increase was nearly 2,500 percent. Since the mid-1980s, China’s fleet of motor vehicles has grown by more than 10 percent a year. Government projections are for 22 million cars in China by 2010, and an even larger number of trucks and farm vehicles.
Government planners in China have identified five “pillar” industries to receive special support in the country’s drive for modernization: automobiles, housing construction, petrochemicals, machinery, and electronics. If China alone succeeds in becoming an American-class consumer nation, the environmental effects will be beyond reckoning.
Though it is hypocritical to deny to others the luxuries (and especially the basic necessities) we take for granted, the current ecological crisis will worsen dramatically as the “more is better” definition of the American dream spreads throughout the globe. According to a recent estimate by Mathis Wackernagel, co-author of Our Ecological Footprint, if everyone consumed at the level of the average North American, it would take four extra planets to provide the necessary resources. Globalization and the marketing of the American consumer lifestyle provokes millions of global consumers to suddenly “need” sport utility vehicles, big screen TVs and closets of stuff-something the already overburdened planet can ill-afford.
Technological efficiency, the last variable in the I=PAT equation is, in some sense, a measure of waste. In the context of the equation, this variable asks how much nature is destroyed or degraded in the process of supplying one “unit” of consumption. If a sheet of paper could be pruned from a tree like a branch, then recycled endlessly with little additional energy input, the T portion of the equation measuring the environmental impact of paper use would approach zero. If, on the other hand, (as is often the case) virgin forest land is cleared each time another ton of paper is needed, while millions of tons of once-used paper are siphoned off to landfills, the T becomes a huge variable, magnifying the impact (I) when lots of people (P) use lots of paper (A). (In fact, a 1993 study found that one ton of paper requires 98 tons of various resources to produce.)
Motor vehicles provide another example. A car that gets 50 miles per gallon has a smaller “T” than a car wheezing along at 20 miles per gallon. The unit of consumption (A), in this case, would be a mile of travel-this is the benefit enjoyed by the consumer. The less efficient vehicle supplies the mile of travel just as the more efficient vehicle does-but at greater ecological cost. Burning more gas per mile traveled requires us to disrupt more ecosystems in our search for oil and sends more pollutants and climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Pointing technology in the right direction
Technology can greatly reduce impact-buying time to deal with population and per capita consumption issues. By one estimate, the industrial world could achieve a 90 to 95 percent reduction in material and energy use without reducing quality of life or the services people want. Quite often in the 20th century, however, otherwise brilliant innovations have caused widespread harm. Efforts to maximize short term profits combined with callousness or naiveté about the consequences of destroying ecosystems have given birth to invention that reduces ecological efficiency while maximizing quicker and less labor-intensive extraction of resources.
Current fishing techniques are a pointed example of an ecologically negative form of “improvement.” In the latter 20th century, human ingenuity produced massive fishing vessels, complete with onboard freezers to store the catch. These vessels are capable of catching hundreds of tons of fish each day with comparatively minimal human effort. Unfortunately, this is accomplished via tremendous disregard for waste. Ocean floor dredges coupled with huge trawl nets and drift nets-several miles long in some cases-indiscriminately scoop up all ocean life in their paths. Ecosystems are decimated in the process. Though efficient in maximizing the catch and reducing labor for the individual vessel, these “savings” are achieved at great ecological cost.
On the other hand, the 20th century has produced a stream of innovations that have resulted in greater ecological efficiency. Despite recent trends toward bigger, less efficient vehicles, auto design has tended generally toward greater fuel efficiency and less pollution. In the late 1990s, the Rocky Mountain Institute designed an inexpensive “Hypercar” that uses 92 percent less iron and steel and was capable of traveling 80 to 200 miles per gallon of gas with zero emission of pollutants. Vehicles based in this design will begin rolling off assembly lines in greater numbers over the next few years-sooner if subsidies for more wasteful forms of transportation are removed.
In Natural Capitalism, authors Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins (of the Rocky Mountain Institute) and Paul Hawken tell of many feasible and economically viable innovations-from ultra-efficient, comfortable, aesthetically-pleasing buildings that require almost no energy to heat, cool and illuminate (relying instead on the sun and natural air flow); to clean, odorless, waterless toilets which eliminate the use of what would otherwise be considered pure drinking water (if channeled through the kitchen faucet instead of the toilet) to wash away human waste.
Technologies that focus on cutting waste and closing material loops have shown great promise. Often, such innovations involve taking “waste” from one sector and moving it to another-in imitation of nature itself, which often treats the waste of one entity as food for another. One example of redirecting the waste stream: agricultural waste fibers in the United States-the unused chaff left behind by the harvest-could make excellent paper with a few modifications to the current production system. Total annual tonnage of agricultural waste (uncorrected for water content), exceeds 280 million tons a year, enough to match the annual paper consumption of the entire world. Currently, non-wood fiber supplies only one percent of U.S. paper. Conversely, it accounts for 80 percent of China’s paper use.
Technology not the total answer
As promising as some technological breakthroughs appear to be, technology cannot provide an escape hatch through which to ignore rising population and per capita consumption. In 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London warned in a joint report that “if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.” (Automobiles provide a pointed illustration: There have been truly significant advances in ecological efficiency per unit. But the number of units-and the cumulative environmental effects of a global car culture-continue to mushroom.)
In sum, technology used wisely can close the gap between consumer wants and sustainable resource use. On the other hand, a belief that technology will allow us to ignore or override ecological limits is pure hubris. Further, technology pointed toward short-term profits and increased production (without regard to waste and pollution) only hastens us toward ecological impoverishment.
Hidden Costs of Consumption
Consumption American Style
Americans, in particular, use and discard a lot of stuff. Since 1940, Americans alone have used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as the combined total of every human being that ever existed on the planet before us.
From 1900 until 1989, U.S. population tripled while the use of raw materials multiplied 17 times. 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. 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. In most consumer categories, we rank highest by a considerable margin even among industrial nations. Our fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain, two and a half times that of the average Japanese. Our 5 percent of world population is also responsible for a full 50 percent of the world’s solid waste.
Beneath the Pot of Gold
Mining precious minerals-much of it to produce luxury goods-is among the most environmentally destructive human activities. As easily accessible veins are mined out, mountains are moved in search of increasingly low-grade ore, creating permanent scars on the landscape. Separating the metal from the ore often involves toxic chemical processes such as leaching with cyanide. According to statistics from the United States Geologic Survey, one ton of ore is mined for every one karat diamond. For every ounce of silver, 5 tons are mined. To create a single tenth-of-an-ounce, 14-karat gold ring, 2.8 tons of ore must be pulled from the earth. Each year in the United States, roughly 385 tons (over 11 million troy ounces) of gold are produced.
Lust for gold also creates havoc for those who can least afford it:
In the late 1990s, the American-owned Freeport-McMoRan gold, silver and copper mine in Irian Jaya-one of the largest in the world-was generating well over one hundred thousand tons of tailings and toxic waste every day. Over the life of the mine, over 3.2 billion tons of waste rock and acidic tailings will be dumped into nearby river systems, fouling the lands and water of local people.
In January, 2000, a cyanide holding pond at a Romanian gold mine overflowed, destroying virtually all aquatic life in the nearby Tisza River and contaminating the Danube. In the two weeks following the spill, Hungary removed 220 tons of dead fish from the Tisza and Szamos Rivers-an estimated 15 percent of the hundreds of thousands of fish immediately killed by the spill. Hungarian officials claimed that heavy metals from the spill would poison the food chain for years to come, including the drinking water of towns downstream and crops grown near the river.
Paper and Pallets: Consuming our Forests
Americans use 27 percent of the wood commercially harvested worldwide. In the United States:
Paper products make up roughly 39 percent of the municipal solid waste stream.
Fourteen million trees are used annually to make mail order catalogs.
Eleven percent of total lumber cut in the United States-including two-fifths of hardwoods cut-goes into shipping crates and pallets, most of which are discarded after one use. At the close of the 20th century, there were 1.5 billion pallets in the United States-six per person.
The average American office worker disposes of 100 to 200 pounds of office paper per year.
Conspicuously Consuming Cows
Ever wonder about the ingredients of a quarter pound burger? One oft-overlooked ingredient is water. According to the authors of Stuff, The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, over 700 gallons of water goes into the average “dressed” quarter pound cheeseburger produced in California:
4 ounce beef patty: 616 gallons
1 ounce cheese: 56 gallons
2 ounce bun: 25 gallons
1 ounce ketchup: 3.2 gallons
1 ounce tomato: 1.8 gallons
1 ounce lettuce: 1.3 gallons
Total: 703.3 gallons
Livestock also consume 70 percent of the U.S. grain harvest, and are implicated in many forms of environmental destruction, including overgrazing, desertification, soil erosion, and deforestation. In Central and South America, millions of acres of rainforest have been cleared to make way for pastureland; one study estimated that for every quarter pound burger produced in these regions, 165 pounds of living matter is destroyed.
One of the primary results-and one of the primary needs-of industrialism is the separation of people and places and products from their histories.
- Wendell Berry
Consumer goods come to us via a convoluted global resource network. Each day-each minute, practically-in the life of the modern consumer is filled with hidden interactions with portions of the planet beyond the horizon, hundreds and often thousands of miles away. In the modern electronic age, the global resource network has allowed humans to shift goods and services from where they originate to where they are desired at incredible speeds. That which is not within our grasp can be obtained-by land, sea or air-in a matter of days, no matter the distance to the source.
A primary purpose of the network is to make us less beholden to our immediate surroundings. In shedding our dependence on the surrounding landscape, however, we lose our intimate relationship with it as well-without developing a corresponding level of knowledge and intimacy with the distant lands that supply our needs. Though the benefits of this network have been enormous, the tragic aspect is that it has allowed us to participate in environmental degradations of monumental proportions in a completely anonymous and unconscious fashion.
Our cars, houses, hamburgers, televisions, sneakers, newspapers and thousands upon thousands of other consumer items come to us via chains of production that stretch around the globe. Along the length of this chain we pull raw materials from the Earth in numbers that are too big, even, to conceptualize. Tremendous volumes of natural resources are displaced and ecosystems disrupted in the uncounted extraction processes that fuel modern human existence. Constructing highways or buildings, mining for gold, drilling for oil, harvesting crops and forest products all involve reshaping natural landscapes. Some of our activities involve minor changes to the landscape. Sometimes entire mountains are moved.
Living off the land
But how much of the land do we actually use to support us? Imagine a 125 square mile city of one million people. How much space does each individual in that city occupy? A simple answer could be derived by dividing the total number of people by the total land within the city. This would equate to .000125 square miles per person, or twelve and a half people per acre.
This answer would be incomplete, however. Beyond the city limits, the residents of the city require many additional acres of land to support their needs. Distant farmlands supply meat, grains, vegetables and fruit to the city’s residents. A nearby landfill takes its refuse. Small sections of forest scattered over the globe supply lumber and paper to each office and household within the city. Plantations from Columbia to Kenya send coffee beans, bananas, cocoa, and sugar.
Mining companies and manufacturing plants mine and process gold, steel, copper and other minerals from natural areas and send finished products for purchase within the city. Soon, it becomes obvious that the city residents are sitting atop far more land than the 125 square miles represented by the city’s political boundaries. Each individual is using far more land than one-twelfth of an acre.
How much land we use…
What if it were possible to determine the total space on the globe that supplied an individual with his or her consumption needs? It is, of course, impossible to identify the exact tree that went into an individual’s writing tablets, or the plots of farmland that furnished the quarter pound burger and fries she ate for lunch. It is possible, nonetheless, to create a rough picture of how much land particular populations use by counting the total resources used by that population, then estimating how much land it takes to produce those resources. The sum total of land required to meet the needs of a given population is that population’s “ecological footprint.”
This ecological footprint for the larger population can then be divided by the number of people in the group to give a rough average individual footprint. A Canadian study did just this. According to the authors of Our Ecological Footprint, each individual Canadian used roughly 2.4 acres of garden, crop, forest and pastureland in 1991. But that is not all. To produce these foods and bring them to market required energy- which required more land (coal mines, oil wells, etc.)-bringing the total land required to support an individual Canadian’s food consumption to 3.2 acres. Additional land scattered far and wide supplied resources for a variety of consumer goods, from packaging to electronic products to motor vehicles. All told, the study concluded that approximately 10.5 acres of the planet were directed toward the exclusive use of each individual Canadian.
According to a more recent estimate using the same methods, the average American in the mid-1990s had an ecological footprint of 25 acres. The worldwide average is less than one-quarter of the American total.
…versus how much land nature has to offer
So how much does nature have to offer? If we divide all of the biologically productive land and sea on the planet by the number of people inhabiting it in 1998, the amount of land per person would amount to 5.5 acres. Of these 5.5 acres, 4.5 are land-based natural and managed ecosystems such as forests, pastures, and arable land. The other acre consists of ecologically productive parts of the ocean, primarily located on continental shelves.
But as the authors of the ecological footprint studies note, it is not safe to assume that all this biologically productive space is available for human use and alteration. There are over 30 million other species on the planet. Many cannot survive on land occupied (in person or through intense management) by humans. The loss of many of these species would have large repercussions throughout the system. How much land should we set aside-as much for our own needs as for the needs of these other species?
A 1987 United Nations study addresses this question. Our Common Future (known as “The Brundtland Report” after the Norwegian prime minister who chaired the report commission), offers a conservative estimate that at least 12 percent of the biologically productive space on Earth should be left intact to help maintain global ecosystems. This estimate would shrink the bio-productive space per person to under 5 acres. A global population of 10 billion in 2050 would reduce that space to under 3 acres-less than 1/8 the current space “occupied” by the average American.
Though it would be easy to quibble over the exact numbers produced by these calculations, an overall picture is clear: Skyrocketing consumption is rapidly depleting the Earth’s ecosystems, robbing future generations of vital life-sustaining resources. We are currently using far more of the Earth than the Earth has to offer.
Pulling the Plug on Renewable Resources
Renewable resources consist mostly of the organic matter we use to meet our needs and desires. They include trees for lumber and paper, agricultural crops, the soil within which the crops grow, the water we drink and wash with, the animals we eat. As part of a natural system, these resources regenerate if given time and space to do so. Though concern over resource shortages often centers on non-renewables such as metals and fossil fuels, using “renewables” at a rate faster than the earth can replenish them can be just as problematic.
According to the United Nations, “The world is facing a growing scarcity of renewable resources essential to sustain the ecosystem and for human survival-from deforestation, soil erosion, water, declining fish stocks, and lost biodiversity.” The problem extends beyond the possibility of creating shortfalls in particular commodities. In some sense, if we overuse these resources we are also tearing down the “factory.”
If industry removes concentrated and structured matter from the system faster than it can be replaced, and at the same time destroys the means of its creation, namely ecosystems and habitats, it introduces a fundamental problem in production.
The unprecedented scale and rate of deforestation and human-induced changes to forests is leading to the loss of immensely valuable ecosystem services. Soil conservation, flood control, provision of clean water, climate regulation, and maintenance of biodiversity are fundamental to human activity. Unlike goods and services traded in the market, they are assigned no monetary values, or none which are widely accepted. Yet those services cannot easily be substituted by human ingenuity and, even where substitution is possible, the economic costs are likely to prove prohibitive for many countries.
Forests anchor terrestrial life on the planet. They serve as critical habitat, sheltering roughly two-thirds of the world’s plant and animal species. They protect and maintain healthy watersheds. When forests are cleared, erosion washes tons of soil into rivers and streams, making them unfit for human uses and aquatic life as well. Forests also play a vital role as “carbon sinks”-curbing human impacts on global climate by absorbing excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
Human consumption, however, is causing the world’s forests to shrink rapidly. Since 1850, more forests have been cleared than in all previous history, with the rate accelerating in the past few decades. Forty years ago, most deforestation occurred in the industrial world. Today, deforestation is concentrated in the developing world. Every minute during the 1980s, 63 acres of forest disappeared from the planet. Though losses are partially offset by reforestation efforts, the net global loss of forest lands between 1980 and 1995 was some 450 million acres, and continues at the rate of about 30 million acres a year.
Worldwide, 80 percent of original forest cover has been cleared, fragmented or severely degraded, no longer providing intact ecosystems critical to the long term survival of species. In the rainforests of Brazil, West Africa, Madagascar and Sumatra-among the most biologically significant lands on the planet-less than 10 percent of the original forest cover remains. In the United States, only 3 percent remains.
Both population growth and the advent of a global market have contributed to a rapid expansion of logging and conversion of forests to agriculture and human settlements. Though precise numbers are difficult to obtain, most experts believe the current leading cause of tropical deforestation worldwide is clearance for agriculture. However, logging remains the primary threat to the last remaining ecologically intact old-growth forests. Often in the developing world, the two work in tandem: logging opens up roads into virgin forest areas, leading landless farmers to burn off more forest lands to create agricultural space on which to subsist.
In 1997 alone, the world consumed 120 billion cubic feet of wood. Over half of that was burned for fuel, primarily in the developing world. Sawn wood for industrial use and construction made up the second biggest category at 26 percent of total consumption. Processing woods for plywood and chipboard used 9 percent, and pulp for papermaking, 11 percent.
During the 20th century, global paper consumption increased by a factor of twenty. In 1997, we consumed 330 million tons of paper, over six times the 1950 level. For every ton of virgin paper, two to three and a half tons of trees go to the mill. Along with this drain on world forests, current papermaking techniques involve large inputs of water, energy and chemicals while producing vast amounts of solid waste, air and water pollution. Worldwide, pulp and paper is the fifth largest industrial consumer of energy. In the United States it is second. The pulp and paper industry uses more water to produce a ton of “product” than any other industry-some 12,000 to 22,000 gallons per ton of virgin paper fiber, depending on the grade.
In 1997, the average American consumed 737 pounds of paper, highest in the world and more than six and a half times the world average. (The Japanese were second at 550 pounds each.) In the United States, 14 million trees are felled annually to make mail order catalogs. Each American gets 34 pounds of junk mail a year-a total of over 9 billion pounds in the U.S. alone. Newspapers and magazines are swelling because of advertising-Sunday papers in particular now contain a thin crust of news surrounding an ever expanding filling of advertising circulars and classifieds. By one estimate, the Sunday New York Times alone uses roughly 75,000 trees per edition.
Though we live in an era of computers, in which documents can be created and passed on electronically, personal computers are actually responsible for a large part of the problem. They are estimated to consume over 115 billion sheets of paper annually. In addition, the past few decades have seen a proliferation of copy machines, wasteful copying practices (especially in offices), paperboard containers for prepared foods, and incredible volumes of catalogs and junk mail. More than ever, forests are felled to produce unwanted advertising and excess packaging for consumer goods and other disposable products intended for one-time use.
Germany is one industrial country that has attempted to come to terms with the overpackaging phenomenon. The German Packaging Ordinance of 1991 imposed the unique requirement that packaging producers and distributors must take back and reuse or recycle packaging materials such as paper, cardboard, glass, tinplate, and aluminum. In other words, a manufacturer of goods may overpackage-but only to the extent that the manufactures is prepared to deal personally with the excess. One byproduct of this ordinance: after stagnating at 45 percent for nearly 20 years, wastepaper recycling in Germany shot up to 54 percent in 1994.
Modern fishing techniques, both in capture fisheries and aquaculture are disturbing many parts of an interlocking biological system that connects estuaries, coastal zones, continental shelves and banks, and the deep ocean… Too many fish are being caught, or grown, in ways that are destroying natural habitats, wiping out key parts of the marine food chain, changing species balance, and degrading water quality. Coastal fishing activities also interact with other human stresses on the aquatic environment, notably pollution from sewage, industrial effluent, and agricultural run-off… The consequent disruption of biological balance in aquatic ecosystems is critically impairing the natural ability of fish to survive and reproduce.
The oceans may seem infinite and inexhaustible, but useful fishing areas are relatively confined-centered around coastal areas where both human and fish populations congregate. In recent decades, the strain of keeping up with human demands is stretching many fisheries to the breaking point.
About one billion people depend on seafood as their primary source of animal protein. In addition, fish serve as an important source of animal feed and oil. Since 1950, global fish harvest (including freshwater and aquaculture harvest) has risen from 23 million tons annually to 133 million tons in 1996, a nearly fivefold increase. Over the next decade, demand is expected to increase between 34 and 50 percent.
The world’s fisheries and aquatic ecosystems are showing the strain of global trends toward greater production and more destructive fishing practices. The amount of fish available per capita has been shrinking since 1970. The global marine fish catch peaked in 1989 at 98 million tons and has hovered at around 94 million tons since. Decades of intensive fishing have already collapsed many northern hemisphere fisheries. Now, the same pressure is being applied to southern fisheries. Recent United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) studies indicate that over two-thirds of the world’s major fisheries are being fished at or beyond sustainable limits, or-in the case of a small but growing percentage-have already been fished out.
The precipitous decline in so many of the world’s fisheries is not just a response to human need, but the result of human disregard for the delicate complexities of aquatic ecosystems in our eagerness to exploit the resource. Technological advances in the past few decades have enabled the world’s fishing fleet to maximize its catch. Unfortunately, the focus has been on increasing volume at any cost, not on reducing waste or fostering a more sustainable relationship with the world’s fisheries. Commercial fleets have increasingly invested in trawl nets and dredges that rake the ocean floor in a process more akin to mining than fishing, sweeping up unwanted flora and fauna along with the desired catch, obliterating seabed habitat in the process. Some overfished stocks can recover, but the devastation wreaked by deep sea trawlers make this difficult.
Wasting Ocean Life
Waste is a serious issue in fisheries management-not just of edible fish but of marine life in general. In 1998, the FAO estimated total annual bycatch-the amount of fish killed and tossed back-amounted to 22 million tons, or one quarter of the total catch. In addition to fish, hundreds of thousands of birds, seals, dolphins, turtles, and other species are killed in an effort to maximize harvest with minimal efforts to protect non-target species.
The highest percentage of waste is found in the shrimp industry. In search of shrimp, trawlers drag the bottom of the ocean with large, heavy bars attached to the nets. This is particularly disruptive to fragile reef systems. With every pound of shrimp caught by ocean trawlers, an estimated 5.2 pounds of marine life are dredged up as well-bycatch that is thrown back to decompose, further disrupting ocean systems. In some tropical areas, bycatch exceeds the shrimp harvest by a devastating 15 to 1 ratio. The lion’s share of the catch goes to tables in the industrial world. Once considered an expensive luxury item but now cheap and plentiful on world markets, taste for shrimp is having an enormous effect on these ecosystems.
Consumer demand for seafood combined with destructive fishing technologies are two primary factors in the collapse of fisheries. Pollution and habitat destruction-also byproducts of overconsumption but in different sectors-further reduce the productivity of coastal zones, where some 90 percent of the world’s fish harvest is caught. Development has destroyed about half the coastal wetlands on the planet. Eighty percent of marine pollution comes from land-based sources.
Fish farming, or aquaculture, adds to production and will meet an increasing percentage of demand over the next decades-but at an extreme environmental price. Intensive fish farms produce high volumes of nutrients, pesticides, antibiotics, and other wastes, which are flushed out into surrounding waters. Aquaculture also places a heavy burden on water supplies.
As is the case with ocean fisheries, shrimp production is a particularly disruptive sector of the fish farming industry. The FAO estimates that a quarter of the world’s mangrove forests-which serve as essential buffers against coastal erosion, flooding and drainage of river systems-have been destroyed by shrimp farming. Shrimp farms also require 29 to 35 thousand gallons of freshwater per pound of shrimp raised.
In a world of perpetual fluctuation the earth’s supply of available fresh water remains steadfastly constant. With rainfall as the source, there is no more fresh water now than two thousand years ago when the human population was only about 3 percent of its current size.
Yet the pressures on our water supply are enormous and growing. Global fresh water consumption is rising steadily-at 2.5 percent annually it almost doubles the rate of population growth. The roughly 85 million people added to the earth each year leads to a continually shrinking amount of water available per person.
Current patterns of use are not sustainable-in desert climates, lawns of non-native grasses require constant watering, while in the agricultural sector much water is lost through inefficient irrigation. Meanwhile, a fifth of the world’s population lacks a steady supply of safe drinking water. Wasteful practices have resulted in our using water faster than it can be replenished, essentially “overdrawing” our water account. Without better water management, future generations might find themselves inheriting an empty tank.
Where the water goes
Crop irrigation accounts for the biggest drain on water globally. While irrigated cropland comprises only 17 percent of the world’s cultivated land, it requires 65 percent of all water used by humans. Most water for irrigation is pumped from underground water reserves, or aquifers. Intense irrigation depletes aquifers faster than rainwater can replenish them. For example, the water level in the massive Ogallala Aquifer, stretching hundreds of miles from Texas to South Dakota declined an average of 16.8 inches per year from 1969 to 1979, 9.8 inches per year from 1979-1989, and 6.6 inches per year from 1989-1999. By 2020, the Ogallala may lose almost two-thirds of its 1974 volume, according to computer projections of the Texas Water Development Board.
Behind agriculture, industry claims the second largest share of the world’s fresh water at 25 percent. The rapid spread of urban areas and industry-often at the expense of farmland-will ensure an increase of that share in the future. In fact if current growth trends continue industrial water use is expected to double by 2025. A byproduct of industrial water use is pollution, which further shrinks our usable supply of fresh water. Industrial growth centered in developing nations discharges up to 90 percent of wastewater, untreated, into rivers, lakes and streams. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 80 percent of China’s major rivers are so degraded they no longer support fish.
Households and municipalities account for 10 percent of global water consumption. Generally, this percentage is higher in wealthier countries, which tend to use proportionately less water for irrigation. While water-efficient technology abounds for those who can afford it, from low-flush toilets to low-flow showerheads, billions of gallons are still wasted each year. Americans are among the world leaders in water use. In the United States each person averages 182 gallons per day for domestic purposes. (By comparison, in Senegal the average is seven and a half gallons.)
While water is still abundant overall, it is very unevenly distributed among and within countries. Growing consumption for irrigation, industry, and rising populations has created chronic water shortages in areas where precipitation is already low or unreliable. If water consumption trends continue, almost two thirds of the world population will be under moderate to high water-management difficulties by 2025, according to the United Nations.
Recent improvements in irrigation technology and practices have greatly increased water efficiency. Farmers around the world are switching to drip irrigation systems pioneered in Israel that can cut water usage from 30 to 70 percent. By employing highly efficient sprinkler systems, cotton growers in Texas have boosted their water productivity by 75 percent. Fully irrigating an acre of land for cotton used to take wells producing at least 10 gallons a minute per acre. Now it can be accomplished-with no negative effect on yield-with only 2 to 3 gallons a minute per acre. However, the initial cost of installing new technologies and incomplete conservation education holds back greater efficiency gains. The vast majority of world farmers still irrigate with older, more wasteful systems.
Real Success Stories: Saving Water in the Desert
In the early 1990s, water experts of Albuquerque, New Mexico realized the city was on the road to water crisis. The main aquifer from which the city draws water was being depleted much faster than previously projected. Studies showed that other desert cities were using much less water-less than half in Santa Fe’s case-than the 250 gallons per capita per day Albuqerquians were consuming. In 1995, the city introduced a comprehensive water conservation plan. The Water Conservation Office produced educational materials and offered monetary incentives with the well-publicized goal of reducing per capita consumption 30 percent by 2004.
The program is concentrated in the residential sector, which accounts for 57 percent of the city’s water use. While the monetary incentives to switch to low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads, efficient washing machines, and even to re-landscape yards using less water-dependent plants are important, getting the word out has reaped the greatest rewards. Project director Jean Witherspoon said, “Our highest priority in the program is marketing and education, since most people seem fairly willing to cooperate if they understand that the community’s future depends on reaching the goal.” The initiative’s impact will not be fully evaluated until 2004, but the current response of the citizens is encouraging. Results for 1999 showed per capita usage down 22 percent, well on the way to the 30 percent goal.
Nature In, Garbage Out
One of the clearest signs that our relationship to the global environment is in severe crisis is the floodtide of garbage spilling out of our cities and factories. What some have called the “throwaway society” has been based on the assumption that endless resources will allow us to produce an endless supply of goods and that bottomless receptacles (i.e., landfills and ocean dumping sites) will allow us to dispose of an endless stream of waste. But now we are beginning to drown in that stream. Having relied for too long on the old strategy of “out of sight, out of mind,” we are now running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind.
- Senator Al Gore, Earth in the Balance (1992)
The industrial economy of the 20th century has paid scant attention to the virgin natural resources it inputs and the spent resources it spits out. In consequence, it has been excessively wasteful-creating havoc by extracting resources in the sloppiest, most haphazard manner while turning valuable natural capital into pollution, climate-altering gases, and solid waste. The most visible component of the waste stream-though not the largest-is municipal solid waste, the trash thrown out at the end of the day from homes and offices.
As our consumerism has accelerated, the amount of municipal solid waste we produce has increased as well. Historically, according to the EPA, production of waste closely follows economic activity: higher levels of consumerism result in more trash. The volume of stuff we throw away can be staggering. By 2001, Fresh Kills Landfill-which serves New York City and receives 26 million pounds of household and commercial waste per day-will become the highest point on the eastern seaboard south of Maine.
In the United States, the total volume of solid waste generated from residents, businesses, and institutions grew from 88 million tons per year in 1960 to 217 million tons in 1997. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, The sheer production of waste in our society is astounding. The typical American discards nearly a ton of trash per person per year, two to three times as much as the typical Western European throws away. Nevertheless, the United States is not the only industrial country with waste problems. From 1980 to 1990, per capita waste generation rose in nearly every industrial society (Germany being a notable exception).
What we throw away
Much as archeologists pick apart ancient garbage middens for clues about the lifestyles of prior civilizations, we can examine waste streams in this century to gain a better understanding of modern societies’ consumer behavior. In 1935, according to official records in the UK, 57 percent of the contents of a typical British dustbin was, in fact, dust. Precious few reusable items made it to the trash. By 1993, that had changed. Dust comprised only 7 percent of the total, making room for more paper (33 percent), plastics (11 percent) and vegetable matter (20 percent).
Though precise records do not exist, around the turn of the century in the United States a large part of the waste thrown out each day by the typical city dweller would have been coal ash-spent fuel used to heat the home. Today in the United States, as in Great Britain, the majority of what we throw away is paper-39 percent of the total for U.S. homes and offices. Next is yard trimmings, at 13 percent. Plastics and food waste each add 10 percent to the total. Every day, we throw out an average of four and a half pounds of garbage per person in the United States.
The increase in paper and plastic garbage is due in part to a sharp increase in packaging. Fully one third by weight of what we throw away in the United States is the stuff we use to wrap consumer goods, from paperboard frozen dinners boxes to plastic detergent bottles. In some cases, packaging has increased so as to better store and ship items for long periods of time and across longer distances. In other cases, packaging has simply become another form of advertising. Eager to make products noticeable in the increased competition of the supermarket shelf, marketers overpackage their products-making the product appear bigger and glossier. Today, oversized paper and plastic containers help sell an endless variety of consumer products-from children’s toys to computer software.
Factoid: Ninety nine percent of material used in production of or contained within goods in the United States becomes waste within six weeks of sale.
Though the amount of waste generated in the United States continues to rise, the rate of increase slowed significantly during the 1990s. The reason, according to the EPA, is “source reduction.” One step better than recycling, source reduction involves streamlining the design, manufacturing, and packaging of products to create less waste in the first place-reducing the load that must be recycled or sent to the landfill. In 1996, an estimated 23 million tons-comparable to 11 percent of the solid waste total for that year-did not enter the waste stream because materials were reused or composted on site. (1990 was used as a base year for the comparison.) This represents a vast improvement over the 1992 source reduction of only 630,000 tons.
Thirteen and a half of the 23 million tons came from increased food composting and “grasscycling” of yard trimmings on site. Four million tons of waste were also saved when manufacturers and shippers began using more efficient containers and packages. (Actually, seven million tons were source reduced, but this figure was partially offset by three million tons of “source expansion.” This negative figure includes the more elaborate and ostentatious point-of-sale packaging seen on store shelves, increases in some sectors of food packaging, and most significantly, the rising flood of corrugated boxes entering the waste stream-most likely, according to the EPA report, associated with the “explosion of catalog, electronic, and Internet commerce.”)
Real Success Stories: Companies and Communities Cutting Waste
Examples of innovative waste reduction cited by the EPA report include:
Alpine Windows, a large window manufacturer in Bothell, Washington, switched to streamlined “glass packs” for shipping its windows, using modified trucks, slings, and tarps to eliminate the use of bulky wooden crates. The move not only saved raw materials, but also money for the company-over $265,000 annually.
Warner-Lambert, a manufacturer of health care and consumer products, focused on minimizing point-of-sale packaging. By the simple step of removing the outer paperboard carton on a line of cold remedies (leaving only a shrink-wrapped plastic bottle modified to be more tamper resistant), the company saved 33 tons of paperboard a year. The company eliminated wasteful packaging on other products, as well.
Whole communities are also getting involved in efforts to reduce waste:
Falls Church, Virginia was able to reduce its residential waste by 65 percent (25 percent through recycling and 40 percent through composting) in 1997. The effort also proved to be cost-effective, as the city was able to reduce its solid waste management budget from $1.05 million in 1990 to $630,000 in 1997. The city’s high percentage of waste diversion is primarily the result of community involvement in education programs such as the Recycling and Litter Prevention Council (RLPC) and the “Recycling Block Captains” program, and the year-round collection of four types of yard debris, and curbside collection of 14 types of recyclables.
Across the U.S., communities that found it difficult to meet recycling goals set in the early 1990s are pushing composting as a way to cut back on waste sent to landfills. In Monmouth County, New Jersey, for example, the government subsidized the sale of 5,000 backyard composters over a five year period.
In 2000, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to offer curbside recycling for food waste. The city will turn the composted waste into animal feed, mulch and fertilizer.
The Waste That Misses The Trash Can
Though significant, the four and a half pounds the average American throws out each day is but a drop in the wastebasket when compared to the total materials required to fuel daily consumption habits. An unseen flow of materials go into the manufacturing and distribution processes, siphoned off long before the finished products reach the store shelves. For example, making a laptop computer requires the generation of waste close to 4,000 times the weight of the computer, by one estimate. The waste associated with generating a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its actual weight.
A 1995 study examined the manufacturing materials unseen by the end consumer. The study found that Americans in 1990 actually consumed over 124 pounds of materials per person per day, excluding water. Our daily 124 pound allotment consists of about 47 pounds of fuel, 46 pounds of construction materials, 6 pounds of industrial materials, 3 pounds of metals, 6 pounds of forest products, and 15 pounds of agricultural products.
But there is more. Beyond what enters the commerce stream, there exists an even larger and less visible pile of natural materials uprooted in the process of separating the raw commodities from the earth.
Extracting or harvesting primary natural resources often requires moving or processing large quantities of materials that can modify or damage the environment even through they have no economic value. For example, to get access to metal deposits, mineral ores, or seams of coal… often requires moving huge amounts of covering materials or overburden. Often crude ores must be processed or concentrated before they become commercial commodities, leaving large amounts of process wastes to be disposed. The cultivation and harvest of crops often causes soil erosion by wind and water, potentially transporting large amounts of material and reducing the soil’s fertility. Constructing dams, highways, and buildings often requires… excavating or shifting large amounts of earth and stone. All such flows are part of a country’s economic activity, but most never enter the monetary economy as commodities.
A study conducted by government and research institutes in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and Japan attempted to quantify the total material requirements of the industrial economies of these four countries-including those “hidden flows” beyond the commerce stream-for the year 1991. The study found enormous quantities of natural resources were “mined” to power these economies-50 to 206 tons per person per year. Translated to daily totals, between 271 and 512 pounds of the Earth and its resources were uprooted every day on behalf of the average citizen of Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States. American were at the high end, exceeding 500 pounds per person per day.
Of these totals, certain industrial activities stand out. For the United States and Germany, fossil fuel use is overwhelming the largest contributor to the total. Fossil fuel use was second in Japan and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, imports of “renewables”-primarily feed for livestock-was larger than the fossil fuel component. In Japan, metals and industrial materials slightly outweighed fossil fuels.
Food and fiber produced by the American agricultural system causes about 16.5 tons of soil erosion annually for each U.S. resident. Building U.S. highways and other infrastructure moves about 15.5 tons of material per person per year. That same per capita amount-15.5 tons-is needed annually to produce Japanese cars. In Germany, getting energy from coal requires the removal of 32 tons of coal “overburden” per German resident per year. The Dutch livestock industry annually causes about 32 tons of erosion per Dutch resident per year-with most of the impact falling on the countries from which feed is imported.
Wherever the impacts land, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint, the hidden portion of these material flows often goes uncounted.
Because the market does not place a price on the hidden material flows, economic accounts do not usually include them. The resulting statistics understate the natural resource dependence of an industrial economy, giving decision-makers a distorted image of the physical scale and consequences of economic decisions. Under such circumstances, it is easy for economic planners or decision-makers to fail to adequately anticipate environmental effects.
The report suggests that while end-of-the-cycle waste and pollution are important, there should be an additional focus on reducing natural resource use at the front end-where half to three quarters of the disruption takes place before the account books are even opened.
Raising the Thermostat
The greatest threat to the long-term health of our planet, as the danger of nuclear war declines, is probably global climate change. For most climate scientists, it is no longer a question of whether global warming will occur, but when.
- Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
[T]here is now an effective consensus among the world’s leading scientists and serious and well informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernable human influence on the climate, and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and the increase in temperature.
- John Browne, CEO British Petroleum
The Earth’s atmosphere-seemingly vast when viewed from within-is, in fact, a tissue-thin mantle separating us from the black coldness of space. By volume, it consists mostly of nitrogen (78 percent), oxygen (21 percent), and argon (0.9 percent), with trace amounts of other gases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is present in extremely low concentrations-it makes up just 1/2800th of the atmosphere’s contents. Yet CO2 is essential to life. Along with even smaller concentrations of other trace gases, CO2 traps heat and warms the planet, making it about 59 °F warmer than the roughly 0 °F it otherwise would be.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased substantially. Ice cores taken from Antarctica indicate that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are at a 420,000 year high. Not surprisingly, the Earth is also getting warmer. 1998 was recorded as the hottest year since record-keeping began in 1860. Indirect scientific evidence suggests it was the hottest year of the past millennium. The ten warmest years have all occurred since the mid-1980s, with 1999 ranking fifth despite that year’s appearance of the recurring “La Nina” current, cooling ocean temperatures. (1999 land temperatures still ranked as the second hottest ever recorded.).
Scientists generally agree that the Earth has warmed about 1 °F over the past century. Though political resistance to the idea has been vocal, it is also widely accepted that humans have contributed to this temperature increase, and will continue to do so in the future. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a team of over 2,500 of the world’s leading climate scientists, economists, and risk analysis experts from 80 countries concluded that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” Based on current trends, the IPCC projects that the earth’s average surface temperature will rise an additional 1.8 to 6.3 °F in the next 100 years. By way of comparison, the total variation in the Earth’s temperature over the past 10,000 years has been only 1.8 °F.
Stoking the furnace
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have been pumping excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting and simplifying forests, plowing prairies and other activities. Over the past century and a half, the amount of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 360 parts per million-an increase of nearly 30 percent. The industrial world-in particular the United States-is responsible for 65 percent of the increase. Energy burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories is responsible for about 80 percent of society’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Each gallon of gas burned pumps over 19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the United States, over six and a half tons of greenhouse gases (mostly carbon dioxide but also methane and nitrous oxide) are emitted per person per year. According to the EPA, 68 percent of this total is controlled by industry and office practices, how food is grown, and other factors. The remaining 32 percent-on average over two tons of greenhouse gases per year-are the direct responsibility of the individual consumer, and can be raised or lowered through personal choices: how our homes are heated, what transportation we choose, the waste we produce.
Factoid: According to American Forests, the nation’s oldest conservation group, the average American would have to plant 30 new trees each year to suck up all the carbon dioxide he or she emits.
Rising temperatures, shifting weather patterns
A three or four degree increase may not seem catastrophic, but this sudden temperature change-exceeding in one century the total fluctuation for the past 10,000 years-will have dramatic effects. Many scientists, in fact, cite climate change as the most severe environmental threat of the 21st century. A study published in Science found that climate change will likely be the second leading cause of biodiversity loss (after land use changes) by the year 2100.
Ratcheting up global temperatures will alter climate patterns, while increasing the incidence of extreme weather-including heat waves, floods, storms, and droughts. Formerly predicable wind and ocean currents will shift, cooling warm areas and warming cooler areas, shifting rainfall patterns and disrupting coastal ecosystems that support much of the world’s population. Projections for a warmer planet include:
A rise in sea level. The IPCC predicts a sea-level rise between one half to three feet. over the next century, as glaciers melt and ocean waters expand. With each foot of rise, 50 to 100 feet of beach may be lost. This would inundate coastal population centers. Already, the 1 °F increase over the past century has been accompanied by a sea level rise of 4 to 10 inches.
An increased risk to human health. Reduced freshwater supply and changes in regional rain and snowfall may increase instances of water-and food-borne diseases and parasites. According to the World Health Organization, changes in the global climate could also substantially increase the geographic ranges of insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. (Circumstantially: In 1999, the northeast provinces of South Africa reported its worst outbreak of malaria in decades. That same year, a mosquito-borne virus caused a fatal outbreak of West Nile encephalitis in New York City-the first reported incidence of the disease in the United States. )
A disruption in agriculture as temperature and water resources shift. Effects will vary widely, but the greatest danger exists in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of southeastern Asia, tropical Latin America, and some Pacific island nations-places where the world’s poorest people depend on isolated agricultural systems.
Severe stress on forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems. Habitat boundaries will shift rapidly in some areas. The rate of change will be too fast for some species to adapt. Mountain ecosystems, forests, and tundra are especially vulnerable to weather changes. (In 1999, research scientists reported the disappearance of 20 frog species in the mountainous cloud forests of Costa Rica-victims of a sudden climate shift and reduction in moisture. ) Aquatic habitats that depend on regular patterns of temperature, current and sea level-including marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and atolls, and river deltas will be particularly threatened by temperature increases, flooding and rising sea-levels.
In 1998, for the first time since 1993, annual world carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels fell, from 63.5 billion tons in 1997 to 63.2 billion tons. Though a trend toward decreased carbon emissions is not yet evident (emissions rose again in 1999), the striking aspect of the 1998 reduction is that it occurred in the face of a world economic expansion of 2.5 percent that year. The decline in emissions stems in part from improved energy efficiency and from falling coal use. Also, much of the growth was spurred by information technology and services-sectors that are not major energy users.
Based on this evidence, Worldwatch Institute suggests that economic expansion and carbon emissions can be “de-linked”-that prosperity does not necessarily depend on overheating the Earth (as some argue to oppose reduction measures). Though United States emissions continued to rise-up 0.4 percent from 1997-even U.S. economic expansion (3.9 percent) outpaced the emissions increase.
Real Success Stories: a climate scientist walks (and bikes) the talk
University of Wisconsin climate scientist Jonathan Foley takes his studies of global warming personally. He, his wife, Andrea, and their three-year old daughter, Hannah have committed themselves to reducing their household’s carbon dioxide emissions by cutting the amount of coal, oil and gas they burn. Along with all the “usual things”-installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, better insulation and ventilation, and more efficient appliances, the Foleys went a step further: they moved out of a house 25 miles away from the university to one four miles away with a bike lane at one end of the street and a bus line at the other. Doing so made for a more pleasurable commute and allowed them to sell one of their two cars, which they claim not to miss. The Foleys also support (both through physical volunteer work and financially) prairie and forest restoration-which helps cycle carbon back into the land. According to Foley:
It’s not all that hard. Our quality of life has improved. We’re saving time and money, though some things, like the wind electricity, are more expensive. Zero carbon emissions is something anybody can do, just by making a few simple choices. People choose to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a sports utility vehicle with leather seats and a CD player. They could just as easily choose to buy better insulation or an efficient refrigerator or a solar water heater. Helping to prevent climate change isn’t a matter of our ABILITY, just our CHOICE. We’re not stuck. It’s not impossible.”
Eighty-five percent of the world’s energy consumption consists of the burning of fossil fuels-oil, coal, and natural gas. Though no immediate shortages of these resources exist, they are finite and will not last forever. What took millions of years to produce, we are consuming in the space of a century or two. Every day, in fact, the worldwide economy burns an amount of energy the planet required 10,000 days to create.
At current rates of consumption, some predict that oil production will peak in the early part of the 21st century, leading to much higher prices and-soon to follow-shortages. Other experts, however, point to the current glut of oil on the world market and remain confident that we will find new supplies or that market mechanisms will foster technological innovations and substitutions as supply becomes limited and prices rise.
Placing confidence in our current supply or emphasizing exploitation of new reserves, however, clouds another, more pressing issue involved in the consumption of fossil fuels: the ecological harm caused by our prodigious use of these resources. Whatever the benefits, fossil fuel consumption has an undeniable downside. By one account:
[T]he fossil fuels that power the consumer society are its most ruinous input. Wrestling coal, oil and natural gas from the earth permanently disrupts countless habitats; burning them causes an overwhelming share of the world’s air pollution’ and refining them generates huge quantities of toxic wastes.
Add to this, of course, what may be the most significant and potentially devastating impact from burning fossil fuels: its disruptive effect on global climate.
Falling off the wagon
In 1973, oil producing nations imposed an embargo that drastically reduced the flow of oil to consumer nations. In the years that followed, higher costs and concern for the future of our oil supply fostered a wave of efficiency measures in the United States and elsewhere. From 1973 to 1983-even as population and the economy expanded- the United States reduced its overall energy consumption. Automobiles were redesigned to travel further on a gallon of gasoline. Homes and office buildings were fitted with insulation and energy conserving features such as tighter windows. Factories began to drastically reduce consumption of fossil fuels. Industrial and commercial energy use in America fell 18 percent in the decade following the embargo.
Today, that trend has reversed. American industry has long since given up the frugal ways of the 1970s: industrial energy use rose 37 percent from 1983 to 1997. Individual Americans also have returned to and are moving beyond pre-1973 levels of consumption. Today, a much larger total population consumes at roughly the same per capita level as before the oil embargo. That level is expected to rise in coming years.
Though many of the efficiency technologies spawned by the crisis are still in place, a greater array of energy-hungry consumer products override the positive effects. Modern homes are filled with electronic devices absent from homes of thirty years ago. Central air conditioning, security systems, extra televisions, VCRs, computers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, large refrigerators and various other appliances have contributed to a 5 percent per year increase in energy use through the 1990s.
The modern home itself is one of the biggest culprits-and a reflection of the new consumer ethic. Per square foot, homes built today are actually much more energy efficient than homes in the 1970s. But they are also much bigger, and therefore use more total energy to operate. Since the early 1970s, the average household (in terms of occupants) has shrunk by one-sixth. The average new home, on the other hand, has grown in size by one-third.
These big homes are also placed at greater distances from work, as suburban sprawl separates neighborhoods from town centers. This puts more miles on the growing number of less efficient vehicles parked in much larger garages. From 1983 to 1998, the average commuting distance jumped by one third while car-pooling and use of mass transit declined. Meanwhile sales of gas guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks jumped. In November of 1998, for the first time SUV and light truck sales surpassed those of passenger cars. The watershed year, however, was 1996: according to the New York Times, it marked the first year in history in which vehicles going to the junkyard got better gas mileage than vehicles rolling off the dealers’ lots.
Energy costs in the United States are far less than in other industrial nations, and this is reflected in the much lower level of energy efficiency of the American lifestyle. Waste is even encouraged by electric utilities, which have cut support in recent years for installation of more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting systems. To drive our cars, fuel our appliances and keep our homes comfortable, Americans use far and away the lion’s share of the world’s energy. With under 5 percent of world population, we use 25 percent of the world’s oil and 23 percent of the world’s coal. Use of coal, which supplies over half of U.S. electricity, jumped 29 percent from 1990 to 1997.
Globally, energy use has risen almost 70 percent since 1971, and is expected to continue rising over the next several decades. Adding to the slow, steady rise in consumption within the industrial world-where most energy use still takes place-is the more meteoric rise in consumption of the developing world. From 1990 to 1997, oil use increased 60 percent in China, 40 percent in Indonesia, and 25 percent in Brazil. China, already the world’s biggest coal user at 30 percent of the world’s total, increased its usage 27 percent from 1990 to 1997. China’s rise toward industrialization will almost certainly be fired by enormous amounts of coal, a cheaper though more polluting form of energy. In Beijing, coal supplies 80 percent of the energy for factories and homes, contributing to epidemics at lung disease and ground level air pollution.
Fueling Health Problems
Burning fossil fuels adds pollutants to the air, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, as well as fine particulate matter which causes respiratory ailments. Worldwide, estimates of mortality due to breathing polluted air range from 200,000 to 570,000 deaths per year. The European Environment Agency recently reported that roughly three quarters of the 105 European cities surveyed did not meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards. In the United States, an estimated 80 million people live in areas that do not meet U.S. air quality standards. In the developing world, air quality has become an enormous problem, as nations adopt the more polluting technologies of the industrial world without some of the safeguards. In cities such as Beijing, Delhi, Jakarta, and Mexico City, pollutant levels are three or more times the safety levels set by WHO.
Acid rain is caused by the emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides. In the United States, electric utility plants account for about 70 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, and about 30 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions. Motor vehicles also contribute significantly to nitrogen oxide emissions. Overall in the U.S., over 20 million tons of SO2 and NOx are emitted into the atmosphere each year.
Acid rain can have devastating effects on ecosystems downwind from sources. It leads to acidification of lakes and streams in otherwise unpolluted areas, in some cases destroying aquatic life. The Canadian government estimates that, even with successful implementation of current acid rain programs in the U.S. and Canada, an area the size of France and Britain will continue to receive harmful levels of acid rain, and as many as 95,000 lakes will remain damaged. More than 500 lakes and ponds in New York’s Adirondack Park alone are already too acidic to support native plant and aquatic wildlife.
Forests are also particularly hard hit by acid rain. In New Hampshire, hardwood forests have stopped growing. Through the Front Range of the Rockies, tree health is declining and evergreen forests are losing their needles downwind from power plants. In the Appalachians, spruce forests have been devastated-even in protected areas like Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The U.S. Forest Service estimates death rates for many Appalachian tree species to have doubled or tripled since the 1960s in areas that are dosed by sulfur- and nitrogen-based pollution.
Behind the Wheel
“The car is the epitome of twentieth-century production and consumption. Cars consume one-third of the world’s oil output. The average American car, assuming (generously) that it gets the federally required 27.5 miles per gallon of gasoline and travels one hundred thousand miles in its lifetime, ends up emitting nearly thirty-five tons of carbon dioxide. The world’s five hundred million cars are responsible for between 20 and 25 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions; only electric power plants, with 25 percent, and deforestation, with 25 percent, are as damaging. But the car’s share of global emissions is growing rapidly, as more and more people around the world join the auto economy. With motor traffic expected to increase by 60 percent over the next twenty years, the UN Population Fund has projected that, by 2025, “developing countries could be emitting four times as much carbon dioxide as the industrial countries do today.”
- Mark Hertsgaard, Earth Odyssey (1999)
In the United States, the auto is the essential mode of transportation-accounting for more than four out of every five miles Americans travel. In 1995 alone, Americans put 2.2 trillion miles on the road, the equivalent of 32 round trips to the sun each day of the year. According to the EPA, the average American car travels 12,500 miles in the course of a year, at a rate of 22.7 miles per gallon, consuming 550 gallons of gasoline in the process. The average “light truck” (including sport utility vehicles and minivans) travels 14,000 miles at a rate of 15.3 miles per gallon, and uses 915 gallons of gas.
For Americans-and many others around the world-the vehicle is more than a mode of transportation. It is a statement of identity-the choice of car a reflection of the owner’s personality. Increasingly, that reflection is getting bigger and more wasteful. From 1988 to 1997, as the number of miles driven increased, average miles per gallon (mpg) on all new vehicles in the U.S. declined from 25.9 mpg to 24.4. Sales of sport utility vehicles-most of which average well below 20 mpg-nearly doubled from 1992 to 1997. In 1997, there were 13.8 million SUVs on American roads.
We expend an enormous amount of our own energy to keep and maintain our cars-nearly one-fifth of household spending by one account. In fact, according to one account:
The average American is involved with his or her automobile-working in order to buy it, actually driving it, getting it repaired, and so on-for sixteen hundred hours a year. This means when all car mileage in a given year is divided by the time spent supporting the car, the average car owner is traveling at an average speed of five miles per hour.
In 1950, there were 2.6 billion people on Earth and 53 million cars-about one car for every 50 persons. Today, there are 6 billion people and 500 million cars-more than one car for every dozen inhabitants. The total global fleet of motor vehicles-including trucks and buses-is closer to 630 million. Since 1970, it has been growing at the rate of about 16 million vehicles per year, accompanied by a similar increase in fuel consumption. If this growth continues, by 2025 there will be over one billion motor vehicles on the planet.
In the developing world, just owning a car has become a symbol of joining the modern age. In some “newly arrived” parts of the world, auto alternatives are no longer even tolerated. In 1993, bicycles were banned from Shanghai’s main street and prestigious shopping area, so as to be out of sight of wealthy Chinese shoppers. In Jakarta, cycle rickshaws were confiscated-officially to “reduce congestion” but in reality to promote the city’s more modern automobile image.
Though countries such as China have only 8 vehicles per 1000 people (as opposed to 750 per 1000 in the U.S.), vehicle numbers in the developing world are expected to increase dramatically. In some countries, numbers are already skyrocketing. Mexico went from 600,000 cars in 1960 to nearly 7 million in 1990. Brazil jumped from 50,000 to over 12 million in that period.
Tailpipe air pollution is only one part of the environmental impacts of the automobile. Burning gasoline emits carbon dioxide, one of the major heat-trapping gases responsible for global warming. Building cars requires extracting steel and aluminum, glass, and petrochemicals. Providing roads, parking lots, driveways, and other supporting structures destroys farmland and habitat. Suburban sprawl is a direct result of plentiful cars, subsidized roads, and cheap gasoline. The eight million cars that are junked each year are partly recycled, but also create large hazardous waste problems. We throw away three hundred million tires, 80 million batteries — the numbers are staggering.
Many of the worst effects come from the automobile’s use of energy. All parts of the oil production system leak — from the oil well all the way to your gas tank-with disastrous environmental effects. Between 1973 and 1993 there were over 200,000 oil spills in US waters, spilling over 230 million gallons of oil. Incredibly, that is an average of 28 “incidents” per day, spilling 31,000 gallons of oil every day for 20 years into our waterways. Oil refineries are a major source of air and water pollution. The underground storage tanks at gas stations leak, contaminating groundwater. Gasoline evaporates as you pump it into your car, and when you spill it on the ground, contributing to smog. Oil drips from your engine, and finds its way into lakes and rivers.
-Union of Concerned Scientists
In nearly half the cities in the world, tailpipe exhaust is the single largest source of air pollution, leading to serious health problems. In Athens, Greece, the death rate jumps 500 percent on the most polluted days. In the United States, catalytic converters, (spawned by the 1970 Clean Air Act) help reduce toxic emissions, but transportation is still responsible for two thirds of the carbon monoxide, a third of nitrogen oxides, and a quarter of the hydrocarbons released into the atmosphere.
Nitrogen oxides, released when fuel is combusted, are a major catalyst for ground level ozone (“smog”). The American Lung Association estimated-for a single annual ozone season-approximately ten to fifteen thousand extra hospital admissions and thirty to fifty thousand emergency room visits in the United States due to high ozone levels. Smog is not just injurious to human health, either. A study by Cornell University indicated that ground level ozone pollution produced primarily by cars may be reducing crop yields in the U.S. by as much as 30 percent, and killing forests in the eastern U.S.
Catalytic converters remove many toxins but do not prevent cars from emitting copious amounts of climate-altering carbon dioxide-over 19 pounds for every gallon of gas burned. Every year, cars, trucks and other motor vehicles worldwide emit almost over 990 million tons of CO2. The primary ways to prevent this (short of completely redesigning or abandoning the internal combustion engine), is to increase fuel efficiency standards and to drive less. Instead, recent trends have involved putting more miles on the road in vehicles that get poorer gas mileage.
The Unseen Cost of Auto Use
Pollutant/Problem Emission per mile Annual Emission
-air toxins car: 2.9 grams
truck: 3.7 grams car: 80 pounds
truck: 114 pounds
- poisonous gas car: 22 grams
truck: 29 grams car: 606 pounds
truck: 894 pounds
- acid rain car: 1.5 grams
truck: 1.9 grams car: 41 pounds
truck: 59 pounds
- global warming car: 0.8 pounds
truck: 1.2 pounds car: 10,000 pounds
truck: 16,800 pounds
source: US Environmental Protection Agency National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory
Since the mid-20th century, a house in the suburbs-away from the hustle and bustle of the city-has been a significant component in the “American dream.” Over the past few decades, suburbia has been viewed as a gateway to the open space, peace, and quiet absent from city life.
Though it is not surprising that so many over the years have chosen houses on quiet cul-de-sacs with big yards, the overall effect has been less than ideal. What began as a movement to peaceful neighborhoods has evolved into a form of development derided as “urban sprawl” that is eating away at forests and farmlands at an alarming clip. One prominent social commentator summed up the current state of urban sprawl with this terse assessment: Longer commutes, more roads, less nature, polluted air, rising local taxes, miles of ugliness.
The Department of Agriculture’s 1997 Natural Resources Inventory found that nearly 16 million acres of privately owned open space-forests, croplands and wetlands-were developed in the five years between 1992 and 1997. This is more than the total for the entire decade prior to 1992, when 13.9 million acres were developed. Pastures and privately owned woodlands are being replaced by housing subdivisions. Increasingly the sprawl phenomenon is affecting not only major metropolitan areas, but small and mid-size cities as well. The USDA inventory also found that the removal of natural cover contributes to the loss of two billion tons of soil each year, which erodes into and fouls waterways.
The ironic result of our mass exodus from the urban core has been to weaken and eliminate the natural amenities with which we sought to reconnect. Bigger, more luxurious homes require more resources to build and more energy to operate. Where development occurs, wetlands, agricultural fields and woods are replaced by acres of asphalt connecting low strung strip malls to row upon row of uniform town houses and oversized trophy homes. In between, expansive yards of non-native grasses-heavily irrigated and chemically supported-serve as biologically impoverished substitutes for natural flora.
The birth of sprawl: The auto connection
One Midwestern mayor stated bluntly: “Sprawl is the direct result of accommodating the automobile.” Indeed, Americans seem to be locked into a spiral whereby automobiles have facilitated low-density development-which leads to increased dependence on the automobile.
In the years following World War II, a series of federal and state policies, including home buying subsidies and roadbuilding projects, were enacted to help make the suburban dream a reality. Cheap land in the countryside was connected to cities via federally-financed infrastructure, including a significant expansion of beltway and interstate highway systems in the 1960s. Tax subsidies for water, electricity and sewer lines helped extend city services and promote development along the rapidly expanding outer rims of urban centers.
Within cities, trolley lines and other forms of public mass transit were neglected, abandoned, or in some cases intentionally dismantled to ease the transition to an automobile culture. Zoning laws were enacted that catered to the increased mobility afforded by the automobile. Housing developments, apartments, offices and retail centers became more compartmentalized and separated-connected only by the roads that carried people to and fro in their cars. As population spread out along the urban rim, density within dropped. In 1920, the average density of urban areas was over 6,100 persons per square mile. By 1990, that figure had shrunk to under 2,600.
Between 1960 and 1990, the amount of developed land in metro areas more than doubled, while population grew by less than half. Chicago, to cite one example, gained 4 percent in population between 1970 and 1990, while its residential area grew 46 percent. During that same period, Los Angeles gained 45 percent in population, but expanded its residential area by an incredible 300 percent. Cleveland grew 33 percent while losing 11 percent of its metropolitan population. This pattern was repeated across the country, as more than 19 million acres of rural land were developed from 1970 to 1990.
Farms and Wetlands
Farmland has been among the chief victims of urban sprawl. According to one study, 70 percent of prime or unique farmland is now in the path of rapid development. Fifty acres of high quality farmland are converted each day in the United States, most often in fragmented areas around major metropolitan areas. Between 1982 and 1992, an estimated 4.3 million acres of farmland were lost to development, leading to more intense, less sustainable practices on the agricultural land that remains.
Urban sprawl is also hard on our natural water regulating systems. Each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 120,000 acres of wetlands are destroyed in the name of development. Wetlands serve as wildlife habitat, natural water filters, and sponges for flood waters. When these wetlands and floodplains are dredged and filled to make way for roads, homes and shopping areas, flooding increases and polluted runoff from urban and agricultural sources are channeled into the remaining waterways, weakening those ecosystems as well. One acre of wetlands can store up to 1.5 million gallons of flood water. Those states that have lost 80 percent or more of their wetlands-Ohio, Kentucky, California, and Missouri-also experienced the most severe flooding in the late 1990s.
Eroding Nature’s Capital
Humankind has inherited a 3.8 billion-year store of natural capital. At present rates of use and degradation, there will be little left by the end of the next century. This is not only a matter of aesthetics and morality, it is of the utmost practical concern to society and all people. Despite reams of press about the state of the environment and rafts of laws attempting to prevent further loss, the stock of natural capital is plummeting and the vital life-giving services that flow from it are critical to our prosperity.
Perhaps the primary source of our problems is that we don’t know how to value nature in our economic accounting systems. In industrial societies, we count as “capital” the wealth gleaned from the manufacturing process-the consumer stuff produced and the money earned from selling it to consumers. The global economy is designed to facilitate the flow of goods and services in one direction and the flow of money in the other direction. Gross world product (GWP)-or gross domestic product (GDP) as applied to individual nations-is the most prominent economic indicator used today. It measures the amount of money changing hands in a given year, a yardstick for the amount of stuff being purchased by consumers. A rising GWP is deemed economic “growth” and is equated by most economists with a rise in the standard of living. Since 1950, GWP has risen steadily.
However, the GWP is only a rough indicator of economic well-being, and in some ways a perverse one. The GWP essentially treats all spending as a gain for humanity, and ignores everything that happens outside the realm of monetized exchange, regardless of the importance of the activity to society’s well-being. By using the GWP as our beacon and treating all spending as positive, we actually promote a number of social and environmental ills.
The loss of old-growth forests, farmland, and wetlands degrade the environment and the American landscape, but these losses are calculated as growth to the GWP. In 1998, more than $100 billion was spent in the United States dealing with water, air, and noise pollution-and considered growth by the nation’s GDP. That same year, criminal activity added $28 billion to the GDP through replacement of stolen goods, purchase of home security systems, increased prison building, and other necessary responses. In the not-so-exaggerated words of one commentator.
By the curious standard of the GDP, the nation’s economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce. The happiest event is an earthquake or a hurricane. The most desirable habitat is a multibillion-dollar Superfund site. All these add to the GDP, because they cause money to change hands. It is as if a business kept a balance sheet by merely adding up all “transactions,” without distinguishing between income and expenses, or between assets and liabilities.
Ignored in the GWP accounting is the planet’s store of “natural capital”-that which serves as initial input for all this economic activity. Natural capital includes not only the familiar resources drawn on by humankind-water, trees, minerals, fish, etc.-but also the living systems from which these resources derive. Natural capital is the “envelope containing, provisioning, and sustaining the entire economy.” It is not merely the human economy but the economy of life on Earth. In contrast to the GWP, since 1950 the store of natural capital has declined steadily.
In fact, over the past several decades, a rising GWP and soaring consumption of goods and services has been accomplished largely through increased resource extraction and waste production. Much of what has been placed on the books as useful production is nothing more than drawing down on our account. Humankind has been treating the natural world not as a fund that must be preserved and replenished, (and one that might supply us with a comfortable living from the interest income alone) but rather like a teller machine that never runs short of cash. In a literal sense, we have been “buying on credit”-funding our current lifestyles on resources necessary for the well-being of future generations.
Placing value on nature
The expense of destroying the earth is largely absent from the prices set in the marketplace. A vital and key piece of information is therefore missing in all levels of the economy. This omission extends the dominance of industrialism beyond its useful life and prevents a restorative economy from emerging.
A century ago, little thought was given to the economic value of nature. Born into a time when resources were plentiful and labor scarce, modern industrial economies developed under a system that places value on human labor and financial capital-not on raw materials. Raw commodities such as trees in the forests and fish in the ocean were cheap and plentiful, their ecological services and complex interrelationships only dimly perceived. At the other end of the production line, oceans, rivers, undeveloped lands and the sky above were viewed as virtually inexhaustible and indestructible dumping grounds for the waste and pollution generated in the conversion of nature to something useful: consumer products.
Under neoclassical economic theory, commodities-even nature-gain value as they are needed. When shortages occur, necessity will give rise to invention. New resources, or perhaps a more efficient method of utilizing the old resources, will be developed. If oil runs short, we might switch to coal. If some patch of nature needs to be preserved, the “rational consumers” of economic theory-who see all and weigh all and ultimately make perfect choices in determining what is valuable-will decide to preserve it. In time, if forests become scare and are deemed by the rational consumers to be more important than lumber, then consumers will begin paying an adequate price to leave the trees rooted in the ground.
Unfortunately, the planet’s life support systems do not operate within the theoretical vacuum necessary to conjure up perfectly rational consumers and unlimited substitutions. To be precise, nature is adaptable, but these adaptations occur on a scale that is well beyond the flexibility and response time of human economies. Though plastic may adequately replace wood as construction material for a park bench, it cannot fulfill the role of a forest in sheltering wildlife, preventing erosion, and helping to cycle carbon. Though managed coastal fish farms can meet some of our food needs when ocean fisheries are depleted or degraded, the loss of marine ecosystems sends shock waves through the entire chain of living systems. When resources that have taken thousands or even millions of years to produce are suddenly removed with the space of a century, ecosystems may suddenly collapse.
Nature’s true value
Those who spend time in nature have long promoted its restorative properties to the mind, body, and soul-and claim that the natural world has intrinsic value that cannot be translated to dollars and cents. Though true, there is also a very real case to be made for the protection of nature strictly from an economic point of view. How much does a society focused only on the bottom line undervalue ecological services?
The answer was suggested by a 1997 study published in the scientific journal Nature. An international research team priced seventeen ecosystem services flowing directly to society from the stock of natural capital. In one sense, these services are the “interest” on the natural capital-the bounty flowing out of a core life-support system that continues to regenerate if used sustainably. The services range from soil formation and climate regulation to pollination, pest control and water supply. The economic value of these services was estimated (in 1994 dollars) to be at least $33 trillion dollars a year. By contrast, gross world product in 1994-total worldwide spending on goods and services-was less than $26 trillion.
It is painfully obvious to real world observers that the supposed “rational consumers” of neoclassic economies have not been sophisticated in weighing this value against the impulse to satisfy short term desires. Focused on immediate and tangible needs and outcomes, we fail to account for the intricacies of biological systems, or the long-term effects associated with destroying parts of it. Many times over the past century, by the time we have begun to appreciate the value of some component of the natural world or account for it in the marketplace, an ecological freefall has already commenced. At that point, human attempts to place higher values on the resource are often insufficient to reverse the trend or compensate for the loss.
Aside from the spiritual impoverishment it implies, adherence to an economic value system that treats the natural world as a free source of building materials or as empty space to toss the refuse is at the root of our current ecological crisis. The Everglades in Florida are dying, ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest have been decimated, Bengal tigers in India are nearly extinct, and Amazonian rainforests together with the multitude of species they harbor are vanishing at an alarming rate. Ecosystems worldwide are collapsing-all victims in one manner or another of a market structure that is weighted toward extraction to meet individual and immediate wants, rather than preservation and an ultimately saner (but more abstract to the individual consumer) pursuit of sustainability and survival.
Promising Signs: a true accounting?
Over 2,500 economists, including eight Nobel Prize winners, support the notion of market-based mechanisms for environmental solutions-like carbon taxes and emission auctions, where polluters pay for the right to emit, develop, or use nature’s services. In addition, though many economists are hesitant to question our current measurements of economic growth, a small but active number believe only a “true cost accounting” of economic activities will give us an accurate figure of the state of the economy.
These “true cost” economists note that, as the GDP climbed 3.9 percent in 1998, the cost to taxpayers from loss of wetlands and their economic services (like water filtration) climbed 3.7 percent. From 1973 to 1993, the GDP rose by 55 percent, while real wages dropped by 3.4 percent nationally. The emerging field of “ecological economics” is beginning to question these accounting incongruities.
In 1995, the San Francisco-based non-profit, Redefining Progress, created a more accurate measure of economic progress, called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). The GPI starts with the same accounting framework as the GDP, but makes some logical corrections: It subtracts factors such as crime, pollution, and family breakdown rather than adding them to the positive side of the ledger (as does the GDP). The GPI also adds economic contributions ignored by the GDP such as household and volunteer work.
International support for the GPI is growing slowly, with the endorsement of such diverse figures as Oscar Arias (former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient), the UN’s Maurice Strong, media mogul Ted Turner, biologist E.O. Wilson, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, and Harvard economist Juliet Schor. Meanwhile, over 200 communities across the U.S. from Florida to Montana have developed new indicators similar to the GPI that measure “livability”-counting time spent in traffic, air pollution, sprawl, etc. as negative factors to weigh against raw spending as a sign of the good life.
The Haves and the Have Nots
In an age of skyrocketing stock indexes and tremendous consumption, it is often assumed that prosperity for one means prosperity for all. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report, the richest one-fifth of world population accounts for 86 percent of private consumption expenditures, the poorest 20 percent only 1.3 percent. The discrepancy between rich and poor is felt even in industrial countries. The U.S. has one of the highest levels of per capita food consumption in the world-fourth in calorie intake-yet 30 million Americans, including 13 million children under the age of 12, are hungry.
In an “age of plenty” the stunning division between the haves and have nots begs the question: How much is enough? And perhaps more importantly for those on the economic margins: How much isn’t enough? These are not easily answered questions. Although there is enough to go around, to meet everyone’s basic human needs of nutritious food, clean water, adequate healthcare, clothing, transportation, shelter, and more, there is not enough for everyone to consume at the American level. Furthermore, excessive consumption eats into a dwindling resource base, making it even harder for those on the bottom rung to meet basic needs. For those at the bottom who often do not consume enough to survive, the patterns of resource consumption at the top of the ladder are particularly ominous when projected into the not-too-distant future.
Wealth is a very relative concept. The phenomenon of people wanting at least as much as their social peers, whether it be salary, house size, or the latest appliance is well-documented. In one study people were asked which annual salary they would prefer: $100,000 if everyone else made only $90,000-or $110,000 if the average was $200,000. Overwhelmingly people chose $100,000, the higher relative salary, over the higher absolute salary.
This may explain why most Americans have more than doubled per capita income and spending in the last 30 years, but still aspire to have more. At one time, it was socially important to keep up with your neighbors, the mythical “Joneses.” Now, aided by advertising and celebrity culture, all eyes are on the rich and famous. The “Joneses” are now the “Gateses.” The continuous, inescapable commercial bombardment, by radio, television, print media, billboards, and other marketing gimmicks, sends a very clear collective message: your worth as a person is inextricably linked to the type of clothes you wear, the brand of car you drive, the size of the house you live in and so on.
If families with all the amenities of modern life-swimming pool, two refrigerators, multiple big screen TVs, microwave, three-car garage-still feel lacking, imagine the psychological impact upon those who have difficulty meeting even the most basic needs of a culture that places inordinate value on money and material status symbols. The pressure to meet society’s material requirements is perhaps felt most acutely by children in low income families and their parents who must constantly battle between the understanding of what they can and cannot afford and the desire to help their children “fit in.”
Interconnected Lives and Environmental Justice
In the 1960s and 1970s, bananas grown in Central American with pesticides banned in the U.S. turned thousands of male plantation workers infertile, leading to the breakdown of many families.
In the 1990s, Royal Dutch/Shell’s oil drilling in Nigeria severely polluted the delta and has been linked to gruesome human rights violations.
The destruction of tropical rainforests for teak and mahogany products continues to displace indigenous people.
Sweatshop workers-primarily women-toil under harsh conditions to sew cloths for export in return for wages not even high enough to support their families’ basic needs.
One rarely, if ever, comes across an oil refinery, a trash incinerator, or a landfill in the backyard of a middle or upper-class neighborhood. The mountains of solid, hazardous and toxic waste generated as a byproduct of excessive consumerism are found disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods.
While these sobering statistics point to strong injustices in our social, economic, and political systems, they are also a result of our high consumption lifestyle. If we cut our current waste in half (which would put us on par with Europeans) we would need only half these facilities. The sad reality is, that as long as we continue to produce solid, hazardous, and toxic waste, it will find its way-one way or another-into the communities of the least empowered people. We can ban the incinerators and landfills from low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., but it is likely that, without significant reduction in waste generation, these industries will merely go overseas to countries with lax environmental laws-as they have done in the past. Any viable long-term solution to environmental justice will ultimately have to address the existence of so many toxic industries.
Tragedy of the Commons
Some of the most profound consequences of our consumer culture upon the wellbeing of people worldwide still loom on the horizon. While our national borders are clearly marked and patrolled, the world’s commons, e.g. fresh water systems, the sea, and the air, all defy ownership and control. The fallout of Chernobyl, for instance, spread over much of Eastern Europe.
Our lifestyle choices indirectly affect the livelihoods of people who step lightly upon the earth, living the way their ancestors did generations ago. Large fishing trawlers on the coast of West Africa are depleting once abundant fish stocks long harvested sustainably by African fisherman in long wooden boats. Similarly, the ozone hole created by our past CFC-use affects people and animals who have never held an aerosol can in their hands.
Global climate change will effect billions of people who have never driven a car or used electricity in their lives. The predicted sea level rise could submerge thousands of coastal communities worldwide-threatening hundreds of millions in poor countries as well as economic centers such as New York City. Likewise, weather pattern changes may forever alter and disrupt traditional growing seasons. People around the world will pay the price for our cheap oil, large cars, and inefficient heating and air conditioning systems.
Sustainable and Just Choices
Where does a particular product come from? What are the working conditions like for the person or people who created it? Did they receive livable wages? From where were the raw resources harvested or mined? And what impact has their extraction had on the natural environment and nearby communities? What are the real costs of this product, factoring in the costs borne by people, the environment, and future generations?
Can I borrow this product from a neighbor instead of buying it for myself? Can it be reused? Are there alternatives made in a more socially and ecologically conscious manner and with less packaging? Are the real costs worth the benefits of the purchase?
Not all these questions can be answered, but they are still worth asking and being conscious of. The more people who ask questions, the greater pressure companies will feel to participate in long needed social and eco-labeling programs.
Luckily, what’s good for the environment is often good for people and communities. Ending subsidies for cars and investing in better public transportation systems and city planning will not only help alleviate air pollution and sprawl, it will give low-income families better access to goods and services and help encourage mixed- income, more centralized and vibrant communities. Likewise, encouraging greater production of organic fruits and vegetables will spare more migrant farm workers from deadly pesticides. And paying people living wages will enable them to buy more healthy, sustainable products for themselves and their families.
The solutions to questions of justice and equity that pertain to our consumption patterns will require a reexamination of our values, the products we buy, the layout of our communities, and ultimately global trade. As a start, we should promote fair trade, livable wages, and better city planning that mixes people of different incomes. Most importantly, valuing people for who they are and how they spend their time, rather than for what they wear, drive, or own, is a simple but important act, that will serve as the foundation of a more just society.
© 2000 by Dave Tilford