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


Photo Credit: 708718Last 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 phenomena 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 lesson 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 are 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.


  1. EVO
  2. 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 in self-control, too. Yes, we are the fattest country as measured the 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. That’s one of the reasons I started the Energy Saving Gadgets blog. I don’t want to just showcase every gadget that claims to consume less energy. I’m looking for gadgets that actually work well, make our lives easier or better in some way, and consume less (or no) energy.

    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.

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)?

Topics: Uncategorized

17 Responses to “Why Don’t More Americans Give a Damn About the Environment?”

  1. “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.”

    Who’s to pay for the kilowatt of electricity, the blogger or the reader?

    I really don’t think that Americans don’t care about the enviroment but that the lifestyle we have makes it easy. I don’t consider myself a “greenie” but I’ve done all the easy fixs like turning down my water heater, programmable theromasat, CFL’s throughout the house, power strips and the like but I did it years ago, and when the costs of solor panels drops I will buy them.

  2. I totally agree with your view on internalizing costs that are currently externalized on the sticker price.

    I’d like to propose that “the environment” is a broad term and though there are areas where improvements have not been made (as you’ve shown), there are also areas that have been improved and continue to improve (e.g. SO2 and NOx emissions). While there is still lots of room to improve in all areas, a lot of people I listen/talk to (in Canada) have a very pessimistic, doom-and-gloom viewpoint that often leads to mud-slinging and blaming “big corporations” and “government corruption” instead of creativity, optimism, and action.

    Just thought I’d also add that although many Canadians fancy themselves as more “eco” than our fellow humans south of the border, on a per-capita basis, Canadians consume as much or more oil than Americans (using your first figure, and populations of 300 million vs 33 million).

    So, I think the issue can be broadened beyond just Americans.

  3. Just like Brian, I have done the basic things to conserve engergy and would also like to start biking to work at some point this year to save some gas.
    However, let’s not forget the topic is the environment and not just energy conservation. As far as that goes, I am not where I would like to be. At my old apartment complex they had recycle bins for paper/glass/plastic/etc and I was actively using for everything possible. However, my new apartment complex does not have anything like that. Furthermore, when I went looking for a place around here that recycles, the closest one is somewhere on the opposite side of town. After numerous calls around and some time spent with google maps, I still did not have a clear direction on where it is. I have been collecting recyclable stuff in my garage for last six months but since I can’t even find a place to recycle all that, I just cleared my garage last weekend and threw all that stuff in the dumpster. Every time I bring this up with apartment management they say sure, we’ll look into that. What really ticks me off is that all the houses around here have these blue recycle bins for this stuff so they do go around and pick it up. But there are no public sites we can dump this stuff off. When I used to live in Ohio, they had the containers almost at all fire stations, etc.

  4. If you will note: that photo at the opening of your blog is of New York City. Please be advised that our mayor, Michael Bloomberg has been trying for years now to get ‘congestion pricing’ for downtown Manhattan. Every single political figure has been fighting him tooth and nail, including the Federal govt. Congestion pricing will charge a premium to permit cars to pass through our congested downtown. The pricing will deter cars from entering and polluting our environment. The type of pricing is already done in large European cities (like Paris, London and Rome).

    It’s NOT the people who are at fault. But the politicians, lobbyists, big corporations, etc. Stop blaming the little guy. We’ve got to go after the ‘real’ entities that are hindering us.

  5. Boomie, thanks for the info. FYI, congestion pricing is “typical” in other countries. In London a few years ago I was surprised to learn that you have to pay to drive downtown during rush hour. Now I know that’s more common. As for who’s at fault, I suspect there is plenty of blame to go around.

  6. Jesse, I could be wrong, but I think your article proves me point. FYI, I’m not exactly off the grid. There is a lot more I could do to conserve energy. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really focused on energy conservation. But bit by bit I am trying to do better. With that, I’m off to mass transit for the trip in to work.

  7. Global warming is not a myth. Ground-based and oceanic temperature records show warming of about three-quarters of a degree Celsius in the last century. About half of that warming, however, occurred before World War II and is widely thought to be related to solar activity. And is it just me, or doesn’t 3/4 of a degree rise in temperature seem pretty stable?

    • Chuck, bad things start to happen at an increase in temperature of 1 degree. At about 3 degrees increase much of the U.S. becomes a desert. At 5 degrees millions die. I do agree that the temperature fluctuates over long periods, the question is whether the current increase is simply part of earth’s cycle or a result of human activity. Peer-reviewed scientific research unanimously concludes it’s the latter.

  8. I completely disagree with your initial premise that Americans don’t give a damn about the environment. I think a more accurate statement is that Americans are tired of being told they are evil human beings because of their lifestyles. Lots of us have switched to CFLs, green cleaning, home gardens, recycling, gone organic where feasible, use recycled and renewable products, cooking from scratch and composting, but that isn’t enough. We’re told we have to give up our cars, turn off our lights, etc., etc., etc. and then we still haven’t done enough. Until the system is changed, there is little the individual can do to effect change beyond the steps outlined above. I would love to switch to solar power, to have grey water water my plants, and to have viable alternatives to gasoline. I am tired of being told I don’t care. We’re doing the best we can with the choices we have.

  9. While I know that a huge number of Americans DO give a damn about the environment, it amazes me how many honestly don’t. I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose, rather they just aren’t making the connections between their own actions and the overall result. I know people who drive a mile each way to work, buy a plastic bottle of water every day, fill a paper cup with coffee at work each morning and toss the cup by noon, drive large SUVs that never leave the city streets, and throw newspapers into their garbage instead of the recycling. I don’t think that they set out to be environmentally “bad” but they sure aren’t making much of an effort to change things. The fact is, it’s very easy to be wasteful in our society, and so much of what we have is disposable and designed for short-term use.
    That said, I spent two years in Africa with the Peace Corps in the late 90s, and in many ways things were worse there. There wasn’t nearly the level of pollution that we have here, simply because people didn’t have access to things like clothes dryers and cars – everybody walked or biked because it was the only option. But for the small stuff, there was almost no envirnomental awareness at all. Littering was a way of life, forests were clear cut to make charcoal… people were too focused on feeding their families and making a living to be concerned with how their actions were impacting the planet.

  10. @DR
    In response to this comment….”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.”
    According to this site….
    oil company profits from 1977 to 2004, adjusted for inflation, were $643 billion, while tax revenues were $1.343 trillion for the same period.

  11. I love the global warming argument. Does it really matter if global warming is caused by man or not? Most americans dont care about anything but their own lives. I work at a place that recycles its office paper, however i work with several people and if they paper recycle bin is more than 2 feet away they just throw the paper in the trash instead. Americans are so self-absorbed that unless u make being enivornmentally friendly a trend like the lastest fashion design it wont happen. Americans will mortage the future of the rest of the world and even their own future childrens lives to live in splendor today. American should be the model example and lead the world in a earth friendly tomorrow. Instead we are the spoiled brat that everyone else in the world thinks is a struck up tool.

  12. who are the bad guys

    Every one can share the blame if you need to blame someone. But here are some things to think about. Clean diesel tech. the trucking industry has cut its foot print by almost 50% in eight years with low sulpher diesel and clean burn engines. The down fall to this is a increase in equipment prices of about twenty thousand dollors per truck and who pays the differance you do. Auto makers in in Europe have diesel tech with 35 to 60 mph but will not use it in the states thanks to the goverment and other groups. Diesel is cheaper to produce and only requires two or three differant grades to meet all states regulations on emissions insted of 17 grades for gasoline. We have 1000 years of natural gas reserves more than any country in the world but goverment regulations and enviromental groups along with lack of high pressure distrabution network it is proceeding at a snails pace. With out an energy policy it will have a hard time getting off the ground considering all the clean burn advantages. Cars, Trucks, power plants, processing of all kinds. Wind farms tech. 10 years ago every enviromental group claimed this was the cure and now they fight every project tooth and nail do they have a clue or do they just like to fight. Companys and goverment has bent over backwards to push this white elephant across the country and now no one wants them they need to make up there minds build or don,t build. There are hundreds of good ideas out there for clean tech. but the enviromentalist and the goverment need tomake up there minds to build or buy eneryone a horse and buggy.

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