mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


America as Environmental Superpower

In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, Shell Oil chairman
Ron Oxburgh said that global warming has him really very worried for
the planet. This remarkable confession, by the head of one of the
corporations most responsible for the problem, underlines yet again
that climate change is perhaps the greatest threat facing human
civilization in the 21st century. If leaders do not act forcefully
and soon, a Science magazine panel warned last week, the world may
pass a point of no return and it will be too late to reverse climate
change. A Pentagon planning unit has forecast that by 2020 rising
temperatures could trigger mega-droughts, mass starvation and even
nuclear war as countries like China, India and Pakistan fight over
river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water.


But intransigence in Washington has blocked international progress on
climate change. Despite the dire warnings emanating from his own
Pentagon, George W. Bush has questioned the reality of global warming
and rejected any but voluntary measures to combat it. He has shunned
not only the Kyoto protocol but any alternative negotiations to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. Thus the country that is most responsible
for causing the climate change problem—and the one most
technologically and financially able to address it—refuses to act.

Worse, this refusal condemns the rest of the world’s efforts to
futility. True, now that President Vladimir Putin has pledged that
Russia will endorse Kyoto, the treaty should become operational soon.
But without U.S. participation, Kyoto will not accomplish much. The
United States is simply too big a part of the problem—it produces
approximately one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions—not to be
part of any genuine solution. Consciously or not, the United States
enjoys veto power over global environmental progress, and the Bush
administration is exercising that veto.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has been a cliché of global affairs
that the United States is the only remaining superpower. Now it is
time to expand the definition of superpower to include America’s
immense influence over humanity’s environmental future. During the
boom years of 1990s, the world focused mainly on America’s status as
an economic superpower whose massive internal market kept world demand
strong. Over the past two years, the Iraq war has shifted attention to
America’s role as a military superpower. But current conditions on the
ground in Iraq—mounting U.S. casualties and no apparent end to a
violent insurgency—suggest that the U.S. is not the military
superpower that President Bush thought it was; it is not able to
impose its will by force alone. By contrast, America’s environmental
influence is not only undiminished, it is growing fast, as
globalization spreads the appetites of American consumerism throughout
the planet.

The foundation of America’s status as an environmental superpower is
its own enormous environmental footprint. With only four percent of
the world’s population, the United States accounts for about 25
percent of humanity’s pollution and natural resource consumption. As
the climate change dilemma illustrates, this 25 percent ratio means
that the world cannot solve major environmental problems if the United
States fails to cooperate. America may not be able to impose its
military will in Iraq, but it routinely imposes its environmental will
on every other country in the world.

More worrisome in the long run, however, is a second, much less
recognized aspect of America’s environmental power: the seductive pull
the American lifestyle has on millions and millions of ordinary people
the world over, especially the young. During two extended journeys
around the world since 1991, I have seen the triumph of American
consumerism in virtually every one of the twenty-five countries I
visited. Thanks to American capital’s global reach, the sophistication
of its advertising, and the sheer popular appeal of the vehicles,
movies, music, food and fashion it produces, people from Brazil to
Bangkok are coming to believe that they too should taste the American
consumerist dream.

In China, a population that twenty years ago had little access to
electricity, much less modern appliances, now is gleefully embracing
televisions, refrigerators, even air conditioning. The dream of
virtually every young Chinese, especially the men, is to own a car.
Global automakers say China is their fastest growing market.
Meanwhile, the bicycles that every Chinese used to ride are
increasingly derided, and authorities in Shanghai have gone so far as
to ban them from city streets.

What’s more, this global transformation is taking place at lightning
speed. Traveling in Africa in the early-1990s, I would occasionally
see posters of Michael Jackson or Madonna in bus stops or other
gathering places in the big cities, but never in the rural areas—the
latter were just too remote to penetrate. Now, barely ten years later,
American pop stars are being celebrated even in the African bush.

During a June 2001 visit to the Transkei, the impoverished region of
South Africa where Nelson Mandela was born, I was walking a dusty path
between two villages when I came upon two teenage girls—fifteen year
old twins, it turned out. After I asked for directions, they inquired
where I was from. Hearing it was the United States, one twin turned to
the other and shrieked, as only a teenager can, R. Kelly, R. Kelly!
It turned out the village girl had seen the American pop singer on MTV
and decided she had to marry him. This, despite the fact that she
lived in a village with no electricity, much less television. But
twice a year, the twins visited their older brother in a port city two
hundred kilometers away where MTV was readily available. After which,
they brought their American-fashioned fantasies back home to a village
where, at a family reunion I witnessed the day after meeting the
twins, grown-ups still made their own (beautiful) music on their own,
passing around a bucket of homemade beer in an unlit hut while beating
drums, clapping hands, and blending their voices in song.

Leave aside arguments about cultural imperialism for the moment. Like
it or not, American products appeal to millions of people around the
world. And why shouldn’t they be able to have them, just like
Americans do? But the environmental implications are ominous.
Americans, remember, are responsible for 25 percent of humanity’s
environmental footprint while accounting for only 4 percent of the
population. Experts have thus calculated that if all six billion
people on earth lived like Americans do—relying on the same
technologies and consuming at the same levels—humanity would need an
extra two or three planets to supply the necessary natural resources
and absorb all the pollution produced. No such planets have been

The globalization of American consumerism as it is currently practiced
is, in short, unsustainable. It will mean the death of this planet, at
least as a place where humans can live in anything like their current
numbers and comfort levels. Turning these trends around is therefore
essential, and while it will be difficult, there is no mystery about
what needs doing. Humans could accelerate solar energy development,
for example, and embrace a range of well-known technologies and
business practices that can not only reverse environmental degradation
but produce jobs and business growth for economies that desperately
need them.

Half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day, but the world’s poor
won’t accept such poverty amidst plenty for long. They are determined
to improve their lot—to sample the opulent lifestyles dangled in
front of them every day on television, billboards and video screens.
One of the great challenges of the 21st century will be to find a way
to accommodate this mass ascent from poverty while protecting the
ecosystems that make life on earth possible in the first place. To
meet this challenge will be difficult under the best of circumstances.
Without the positive participation of the leading environmental
superpower, it will be impossible. During his more than three years in
office, George W. Bush has given no indication that he recognizes,
much less cares about, the global environmental crisis. Which is yet
another reason why regime change in Washington is so urgently needed
this November.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.