THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
OF U.S. BABIES
The US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to include a detailed statement of likely environmental impacts in proposals for major actions, such as the creation of new power plants. The initiating force behind any large project generally is the desire to service or to extract profit from a human population. Thus, we view the environmental impacts of specific facilities as the product of the number of consumers and their per-capita consumption rate.
It follows that, given a nation's level of affluence and technology, the nation's population size is closely associated with its aggregate environmental impacts. For example, at the 1990 living standard, a US of 250 million people would cause roughly double the environmental impact of a US of 125 million people. In some sense, then, the ultimate environmental impact occurs with the birth of each new human being, because a whole suite of production and consumption activities commence with that birth.
This is a first crude attempt to develop an environmental impact statement for the birth of one baby in the 1990s in the US. We estimate the magnitude of 100 environmental impacts that one American born today will cause over an expected lifetime and group them under five headings: waste generation, mineral consumption, energy consumption, food consumption and ecosystem alteration. We also consider, but do not quantify, extinctions of both species and Indigenous cultures.
An American born in the 1990s will produce in a lifetime approximately one million kilograms (2.2 million lbs.) of atmospheric wastes, 10 million kgs (22 million lbs.) of liquid wastes, and one million kgs (2.2 million lbs.) of solid wastes. An American will consume 700,000 kgs (1.54 million lbs.) of minerals, and 24 billion BTUs of energy -- equivalent to 4000 barrels of oil. In a lifetime, an average American will eat 25,000 kgs (55,000 lbs.) of animal products, provided in part by slaughtering 2000 animals.
The US, Canada, Russia and all of Europe will account for only about five percent of the world's next billion people. Nevertheless, any US population increase will cause great environmental damage, because the US per-capita consumption rate is ten to 100 times that of most of the world's countries.
During the next decade, India and China will each add to the planet approximately ten times as many people as will the US. Nevertheless, if per-capita consumption levels stay constant, environmental degradation and natural resource depletion caused by the US population increase may exceed the environmental stresses caused by the increase in the populations of India and China combined.
Compared to Indians, Americans (on a per capita basis) produce 27 times as much carbon dioxide, spend 101 times as much on the military, and own 127 times as many telephones, 116 times as many televisions, and consume 35 times as much energy.
Thus, although we think that population control is critical in the developing world (because the developing world needs to balance its resource demand with its resource availability), population control in the US is as important in determining the health of the planet.
Curiously, almost all of contemporary US culture is oriented toward increasing consumption of almost all resources. Some religious sects promote unrestrained procreation. The US media uses advertisements incessantly to encourage resource-consuming lifestyles and the identification of personal worth with consumption. Universities teach consumption insatiability as a basic axiom of introductory economics, which rarely examines the consequences of personal consumption on the environment.
We wish to protect the quality of life for all humans, present and future, because we believe that everyone's quality of life is threatened by continued population growth. Of all the decisions couples will ever make, their decision whether or not to create a child will have the largest impact on our global environment. The most effective way an individual can protect the global environment, and hence protect the well-being of all people, is to abstain from creating another human.
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