Arnold, D. (20 August, 2002) “US Versus the World,” The Boston Globe
Arnold, D. (20 August, 2002) “World
Summit: A Sense of Slipping Backward,” The Boston
(Download US Versus the World overview as a PDF)
The average resident of Dorchester, Mass throws away 28 pounds of household trash per week. That’s more than 28 times the amount that an average resident of Oslo, Norway
discards. The average American requires an ecological footprint of 24 acres to sustain his consumption each year. The world average is 5.6 acres.
The American love affair with material possessions, alongside of a noted negligence of environmental costs, and a conscience-free trash habit, have made this nation’s standing in the global environmental debate a bit suspect. In these two articles, Arnold situates the epidemic of American waste in the context of an upcoming world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, South Africa
The guiding concern of the United Nations sponsored summit includes calls for clean air, pure water, and prosperity. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University:
“Johannesburg is a format for thinking about environmental health worldwide by integrating science, diplomacy, and the concerns of the business community. Johannesburg
may not add a lot, but it proves that we can lurch forward.”
The goal of the summit is to produce a document that renews many of the initiatives established by the Rio Earth Summit. But building consensus has not been easy. Here are some of the concerns and proposals under consideration:
- 40% of the world’s population faces water shortages.
- 2.2 million people die annually from contaminated water.
- More than 3 million people die annually from the effects of air pollution.
- 2.4% of the world’s forests were destroyed during the 1990s.
- The world’s population was 2.5 billion in 1950, passed 6 billion in 2000, and is projected to pass 8 billion by 2025.
- The sea level is rising 1 centimeter per decade.
- In 1992 Rio participants agreed to bring consumption within levels that could be sustained indefinitely. They also pledged to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, the primary cause of human-induced global warming, to 1990 levels.
- In 1992 the U.S. had 5% of the world’s population but was consuming about 25% of the world’s energy and 30% of its raw materials.
- Between 1992 and 2002 the U.S. consumption of energy has increased 21%, material consumption is up 10%, and greenhouse gas emissions are up 13%.
- U.S. emission levels are expected to exceed 1990 levels by more than 46% by 2020.
- Leading into Johannesburg, participating nations have agreed that non-renewable logging practices are environmentally destructive, and that modern energy services, clean water, and better sanitation should be more accessible to all.
- One proposal demands that depleted fisheries be restored to full health by 2015.
- Another proposal calls for trade-distorting subsidies to be phased out by 2007.
- Another proposal demands that countries (such as U.S.
- ) who signed the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by obligated to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which set specific timetables and goals for the reduction of greenhouse-has emissions.
Some experts claim that the standards set at the original Rio summit were too unrealistic for the American economy and way of life. Others point out that America
donated $500 million to the UN’s Global Environment Facility, a fund designed to support UN environmental programs.
But the American environmental record, notes Arnold, still has some embarrassments. Namely, the U.S. has failed to come close to any of the goals set at Rio. The U.S.
has failed to sign Agenda 21 and the Convention on Climate Change – two documents calling for sustainable development and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, there is no American plan in place for attempting to meet these standards.
In 1997 the U.S. did sign the legally binding Kyoto Protocol – agreeing not only to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, but also to drop them 7% lower by 2012. In 2001 President Bush repudiated the protocol, citing too much economic risk. According to Donald Brown, author of Heat, and an environmental liaison for the Pennsylvania government,
“We are failing the world on a catastrophic moral level. Our excuse is our economy. But the source of American power doesn’t come from our McDonald’s. It comes from doing the right thing.”
When 100 heads of state and 60,000 delegates convene in Johannesburg the appeal to a collective plan of restraint will no doubt voice concerns about American habits and priorities. The view expressed by Oystein Dahle of Norway is representative: “It’s shameful. The American business lobby is in charge of US
environmental policy at just the time the world is looking for American leadership.”
According to John Bonine, cofounder of the Oregon-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide: “The US
had not been the only problem. But American opposition to any firm targets or deadlines frustrated a lot of people.”
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTIONS AND DISCUSSION
1. Were you aware of the Rio or Johannesburg
2. How much household garbage do you and your family produce each week?
3. Are teenagers you know aware of the environmental issues currently facing the world?
4. How might economic priorities conflict with environmental goals?
5. Short of legally binding restrictions, what voluntary steps can individuals take to ease the American drain on natural resources?
Environmental issues are getting more attention in America
, particularly as public officials and pop-culture celebrities get on board. But our propensity to debate the issue prevents many from recognizing what other nations and experts agree is a very real crisis. Perhaps in our devotion to a free way of life we have grown accustomed to ignoring the negative effects of how we live.
Christopher S. Yates cCYS