by Donella Meadows
— August 5, 1999 —
Singapore, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, United States, Norway. Those are the world’s five top nations, in descending order, in — well, what category would you guess?
If you say income per capita, you’re close, but no cigar. Since the 1985 oil price crash, the Middle East no longer dominates the list of the world’s richest nations. The income leaders in 1998 were Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Denmark, and Singapore. The United States was sixth.
Those five nations up there at the top of this column lead the world not in income, but in per capita fossil fuel consumption and therefore carbon dioxide emission. They are tops in per-person energy use and air pollution and climate disturbance. Singaporeans are way ahead of everyone else, pouring into the atmosphere 35 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. Americans emit 20 tons apiece, which sounds moderate unless you know that the average citizen of the planet emits four. And that the world’s scientists say that collectively we have to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent, if we want to stabilize the atmosphere and the climate.
Switzerland, first in income, is number 42 in per capita carbon emissions. Japan ranks second in income, 22nd in carbon. Being rich doesn’t have to mean being a climate hog.
The numbers come from the “Living Planet Report 1998,” put out by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It ranks all nations in terms of their consumption of various earthly products. I found the top five on each list especially interesting.
For example, here’s a surprising bunch of countries to head a list: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Iraq. Of what are they the top consumers?
You know your geography, if you said water. These are arid countries with large rivers that are diverted into vast areas of irrigated desert. The first four were the sites of the cotton-growing schemes of the Soviet Union. They have drawn down rivers and lakes, building up salts, creating ecological disasters. Turkmenistan still withdraws over 6,000 cubic meters of water per person per year. The U.S. uses about 1,500. The world average is 750.
OK, what list do these countries lead? Norway, Chile, Denmark, Taiwan, Netherlands.
They are the world’s top fish consumers. Norway downs 250 kilograms per person per year, or a hard-to-imagine pound and a half of fish per person per DAY. The United States averages 44 pounds per person per year, slightly above the global average of 33.
Kuwait, Taiwan, South Korea, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. These are the top cement consumers. They are building highways and high-rises at a ferocious clip. Kuwait pours out 1300 kilos of cement per person per year; the world average is just over 200; the United States is at 300. We would have been higher back when we were building our interstate highway system.
Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, United States, Liberia are the top five nations in per capita wood consumption. I assume that Liberia, a very poor tropical country rapidly being deforested, got so high on this list because of wood burned for fuel, as opposed to fax paper and pallets and packaging.
The U.S. is high on all lists, but at the very top on only one, which starts out like this: United States, New Zealand, Lithuania, Yugoslavia (before the Kosovo war), Denmark.
These are the top grain consumers. Actually, more accurately, the top meat consumers. Americans scarf up 700 kilos of grain per person per year, or over four pounds per person per day. There’s no way you could eat four pounds of rice or oatmeal or bread in a day. To consume that much we put most of it through cows and chickens and pigs. World average grain consumption is just over 300 kilos per person per year. The lowest nation on this list, Somalia, averages about 50.
So what? Aside from worrying about the folks who get too little of everything, why should we care who gets most?
The World Wildlife Fund cares because it knows that everything material we consume comes from the planet, which means from the homes or habitats of other species. WWF puts together these consumption statistics to calculate a Living Planet Index (LPI), which summarizes the human impact on forest, freshwater, and ocean ecosystems
Here’s their stunning conclusion: “The LPI has declined by about 30 percent relative to its reference point in 1970, which can be interpreted as meaning that the world has lost nearly a third of its natural wealth in that time. Globally, consumption pressure is growing rapidly … and is likely to exceed sustainable levels …, if indeed they have not been exceeded already.”
If we are eating into nature at such a pace — and numerous scientific reports, including a press release this week from the International Botanical Congress meeting in St. Louis, suggest that we are — then it matters who is eating most.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999