Sunday, April 20, 2008


At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I think it is true that people in the developing nations want to be like Americans in many ways. They aspire to live like we do, in large houses, with as many cars, trucks and SUVs as we want, and with all the electronic gear we can accumulate. The only problem with this is that the planet probably can't support it.

Now before you get on your high horse and accuse me of some form of elitism, what I mean is that we Americans have created a life style that is selfish, ignorant and non-sustainable.

A few facts from an article in today's New York Times:
  • the U.S. burns about one quarter of the oil used in the world
  • fleet wide standards, in miles per gallon, for new motor vehicles for several nations:
    • Japan 46.0
    • European Union 43.0
    • China 36.0
    • U.S. cars 27.5
    • U.S. light trucks 22.2
  • Average miles per vehicle driven annually:
    • Japan 7,097
    • European Union 7,829
    • U.S. 12,427
  • For every 1 American who bicycles to work, 5 walk to work, 9 use public transit, 154 drive to work alone, 21 ride in car pools
  • oil consumption increase (+) or decrease (-) since 1980, as percent:
    • U.S. +21
    • Japan +2
    • Italy -13
    • Finland -14
    • France -14
    • Switzerland -18
    • Germany -20
    • Sweden -32
    • Denmark -33
In the United States, governmental policy rewards oil and coal production and discourages alternative energy development (U.S. spending on energy research has decreased by half since 1979, while spending on military research has more than doubled, and is about 20 times what we spend on energy research).

Changing light bulbs (to compact fluorescent) and driving Prius cars are good things, but they don't address the real issues that will be the major issues for our children and grandchildren. We in America live in an automobile culture - our cities are designed around the automobile, our consumer activities mostly demand an automobile, and the oil/auto/highway lobby primarily drives government policies that affect these industries.

We generally live far from where we work. We have very few transportation options outside of our cities - passenger trains in America are a joke, with the exception perhaps of the East Coast commuter corridor. Big box stores and shopping centers are the norm, and are typically located out on the highway. We pay a ridiculously low amount of money for gasoline, compared to the rest of the world, and complain bitterly when the price increases.

There are some positive moves, mostly on the local level such as Portland, Oregon and other cities, where light rail, green buildings, and sustainability programs are on the rise. These are good signs, but I believe that a much more fundamental change is needed. As individuals, we can live more sustainably, but our government needs to undergo drastic change before our impact on the world, as a nation, is more in line with the needs of the planet.

And so to our friends in India, China and other developing nations, please do look at the American life style as you contemplate your futures, but look at it with a critical eye. You can do better than we have.

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