Green Living

Why Don’t More Americans Give a Damn About the Environment?

Why Americans as a whole don’t seem to care about the environment.

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Last week I launched a new blog called Energy Saving Gadgets. As the name suggests, the site is focused on eco-friendly gadgets of all kinds. I’ve written generally about how being energy efficient can save you money (check out Money Saving Tips and 20 Inexpensive Ways to Lower Your Utility Bills), but I wanted a site exclusively focused on green gadgets. As part of the site’s launch, I spent hours upon hours researching various topics about the environment and our impact on the planet. And from that research, I came away with a very troubling conclusion--we Americans on the whole don’t really, truly care about the environment.

If you ask a typical American if they care about the environment, the answer of course will be yes. But if you then ask them to name three things they’ve done in the last 30 days to conserve energy, you’re likely to get a blank stare. And if energy conservation costs money or is inconvenient, forget about it. While global warming may be a real scientific phenomenon in other parts of the world, it’s just a myth here. Just ask the Bush administration, they’ll tell you it’s a myth. So the key question is why? Why don’t we Americans take concrete actions to lessen the impact our living has on the world? Before I give you my answer to that question, let’s take a look at some facts.

The typical American's impact on the planet

Here are some facts taken from a variety of sources (listed below). The data is as of the last few years:

  • The U.S. accounts for about 4% of the world’s population but produces 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
  • The total current capacity of the earth to absorb CO2 is about 2.2 metric tons per person. The U.S. emits 10 times that amount per person.
  • The automobile is by far the largest polluter for the average American, belching out a whopping 11,000 lbs. of CO2 per year.
  • The U.S. consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil per day, about 1/4 of the world's consumption.

Source: Energy Information Administration

To put oil consumption in the U.S. into perspective, here is a graph of the oil consumption of the top 10 oil consuming countries:

Why do we Americans consume so much?

This is the big question. Why don't more Americans seem to give a rip about our impact on the planet. Now don't misunderstand this question. There are plenty of folks in the U.S. that care deeply about the environment, just like there are plenty of folks outside the U.S. that don't. But as a nation, we cannot run away from the data. We are an oil and food consuming machine, far out pacing the rest of the world. Why? Here are my thoughts on that question, in no particular order:

We can

This is in my view, the single biggest reason the U.S. consumes as much as it does--it can. Through the hard work of generations past, and a county rich in natural resources, we have built the single largest economy in the world and the world’s highest standard of living. This allows the average American to live far above most others in the world. A two car family is not the exception; it’s the norm. Weekend trips to Wal-Mart, movie theaters, Best Buy, restaurants, and so on are typical. If other countries had the capacity to consume as much as we do, they probably would. Why? Human nature.

Lack of self-control

As a country, we are not particularly fond of self-control in certain areas of our lives. Just look at our savings rate--it’s negative by some measures (The Negative Saving Rate and the Age of Easy Credit). And as compared to other countries, the U.S. savings rate is pathetic. Here’s a chart from data taken in 2003:

Our savings rate then was just 1.4%, and our consumption accounted for more than 70% of GDP!!

And when it comes to food, we lack self-control, too. Yes, we are the fattest country as measured by the percentage of the population that are deemed obese:

Expensive, inconvenient alternatives

We Yankees are a very practical bunch. We measure everything by the almighty dollar (well, it use to be almighty, anyway). Give us solar technology that actually works well at a lower price, and we’ll be hauling solar panels home from the Home Depot atop our mammoth SUVs. The problem is that eco-friendly technology hasn’t been all that practical. Yes, you can add solar panels to your home, for a cost that will take 50 years to recoup. That’s not going to cut it in the U.S. Unfortunately, alternative energy has developed something of a bad reputation in the U.S., even though great improvements have and are being made each day.

One-person-can’t-make-a-difference myth

Finally, we suffer from the notion that individually we can’t make a difference. It’s the view that what I do won’t save the planet, so why should I be inconvenienced while everybody around me enjoys the energy-consuming lifestyle we know and love here. Frankly, there’s no easy answer to this. In my view, we need to do what we can to burden our choices with the costs they truly represent. For example, the cost of gasoline should reflect not only the cost of the oil and refining process, but the environmental impacts of burning that gallon of gas, too. Of course, internalizing these external costs isn’t easy, but who said this was going to be easy.

Related: Best Earth Day-Friendly Robo Advisors for Socially-Responsible Investing

The U.S. does contribute to the solution

I should end this article on a high note. The United States has contributed quite a lot to understanding our impact on the planet. The world today knows far more about the environmental impact we human beings have on the planet in large part because of technology and innovation developed in the United States. Two simple examples are the satellites circling the earth collecting data and the super computers that crunch the data. And even under the Bush administration, the U.S. Government spends billions of dollars each year protecting and studying the environment. Many believe it should do more, but frankly, shouldn't "we the people. . ." be taking the lead?

So what do you think? Why don’t more Americans give a damn about the environment (or do you think they do)?


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