A national perspective

Population growth, economic activity, and rising per capita income all tend to put pressures on the U.S. environment. For example, with global population still climbing since the birth of the 6 billionth person on October 12, the number of Americans has grown to more than 273 million people, up more than 30 percent since 1970.

Rising numbers and increased wealth together have increased our consumption of energy and natural resources and our generation of waste. In the face of these pressures alone, the record of improvement in many environmental, energy, and natural resource areas is impressive. Already, we Americans buy more efficient vehicles, appliances, and plumbing fixtures than our parents ever did. But, we buy more of them, which means more resources are consumed not only in their manufacture but also in their aggregate use. It’s a vicious circle—productivity making consumer goods cheaper and abundant and we consumers buying more and more—and our society won’t break it until we limit our personal consumption.

The North American region is the largest per capita contributor to greenhouse gases, mainly due to high energy consumption. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it took 36 percent less energy in 1998 to produce the same unit of economic output than it did in 1970. And for the first time since 1993, carbon emissions were down over the previous year—by 0.5 percent, even though the economy grew 2.5 percent.

In absolute terms, we Americans produce more waste each year. Recycling, however, continues to surface as a national success story. The U.S. Postal Service alone generates more than 1 million tons of undeliverable mail annually. Already recycling much of this, the service plans to implement recycling in all 35,000 U.S. post offices by the end of 2000. Although Americans consumed more paper in 1998 than in the previous year, recycled paper accounted for more than two-thirds of that increase.

A global perspective

It seems much more difficult to find signs of hope and reason for optimism when the global environment is considered. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, two overriding trends characterize the beginning of the third millennium. First, the global ecosystem is threatened by grave imbalances in productivity and in the distribution of goods and services. A significant proportion of humanity still lives in dire poverty, and projected trends reveal an increasing divergence between those who benefit from economic and technological development, and those who do not. This unsustainable progression of extremes of wealth and poverty threatens the stability of global society as a whole, and with it the global environment.

Second, the world is undergoing accelerating change, with environmental stewardship lagging behind economic and social development. Environmental gains from new technology and policies are overwhelmed by population growth and economic development. We need to harness the processes of globalization to resolve, rather than aggravate, the imbalances that divide the world today. Resolving these imbalances is the only way to ensure a more sustainable future for the planet and society.

According to Global Environment Outlook, a recent publication of the United Nations Environment Programme, the modern industrial economies of North America, Europe, and parts of East Asia consume immense quantities of energy and raw materials, and produce high volumes of wastes and polluting emissions. The magnitude of this economic activity is causing environmental damage on a global scale and widespread disruption of ecosystems.

In other regions, particularly in many parts of the developing world, poverty combined with rapid population growth is leading to widespread degradation of renewable resources—primarily forests, soils, and water. For example, nearly one in three Asians has no access to a safe drinking water source; access to drinking water is worst in South and Southeast Asia where nearly half the population lacks sanitation services.

The United Nations has predicted that if present trends in population growth, economic growth, and consumption patterns continue, the health of ecosystems around the world will continue to decline and ultimately fail. Trends toward environmental degradation can be slowed, however, and economic activity can be shifted to a more sustainable pattern. Choices for development and patterns of consumption are shaped by human aspirations and values, and these choices can be influenced by both public policy and individual action.

Better public understanding of the environmental consequences of the consumer society has begun to catalyze subtle shifts in purchasing behavior and lifestyle choices. The challenge for each of us as residents of this planet is to minimize the environmental consequences of our everyday decisions, to consume with conscience, and to support and demand changes that will lead to a more equitable use of resources by the entire world population. (See sidebar)