Container ship on the Mississippi River near New Orleans. All photos and captions courtesy National Geographic.
The latest installment of the National Geographic and GlobeScan's Greendex rankings of consumer behavior in 17 countries has been released, with similar results to past years: India, Brazil and China rank as the most sustainable, with the US and Canada ranking last. The good news is that improvements were seen in most of the countries surveyed.
Colorful hillside and coastal homes in Saint Joseph, on the western side of the Dominican Republic. Americans, Hungarians, British and Australians saw marked increases in the area of housing in the 2010 Greendex Survey, as consumers made moves to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
As in 2009, much of the increase in the overall 2010 Greendex scores was due to more sustainable behavior in the housing category, in which the Greendex measures the energy and resources consumed by people's homes. Americans, Hungarians, British and Australians saw marked increases in this area, as consumers made moves to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. In some countries, economic stimulus programs may have been a factor in motivating change. Changes in personal behavior within the categories of personal transportation, food and consumer goods were mixed, with some countries improving and some deteriorating.
The results show that both cost considerations and environmental concerns motivated consumers to adopt more environmentally sustainable behavior over the past year. When consumers who reported decreases in their energy consumption were asked why their consumption declined, most cited cost as one of their top two reasons, but significant percentages ranging from approximately 20 percent to 50 percent also said environmental concerns were one of the main reasons for the decrease.
Chili pepper assortment and shopping bags at an outdoor market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Indians maintained first place on the Greendex food sub-index and have increased their score by 7 points since 2009. This high ranking of environmentally friendly behavior can be attributed mainly to Indians' low consumption of beef, and the fact that they, along with the Japanese, are the most likely consumers to frequently eat fruits and vegetables (95 percent). Indians also prefer locally and self-grown foods.
Greenwashing, Feelings of Futility Cited as Greatest Barriers
As for the barriers to more environmentally sustainable behavior, greenwashing was seen as the most significant barrier (44%), followed by a sense that individual efforts aren't worthwhile if government and industry don't also act (40%). Both exceed the perceived financial costs of going green, which slightly under a third of respondents identified as a barrier.
Continuing the stats parsing: 37% of Chinese cited the environment as the most important issue facing their country (up 15% over last year), while only 1% of people in the US did so. Interestingly, though Indians top the list, they are also are the most likely to say that environmental problems are exaggerated (40%).
For those interested in the exact rankings: India scored a 62.6, Brazil got a 58.0, and China received 57.3; at the other end, France scored 48.9, Canada 47.9, and the US got a 45.0.
An aerial view of Interstate 495, Maryland, during rush hour. With a score similar to last year's, Americans maintain the lowest rank on the Greendex transportation sub-index.
Ecologically Sustainable Consumer Behavior is a Question of Scale
All of which brings this back to the question of scale. The Greendex just measures the impact of the individual consumer in each nation, not the nation as a whole. India and China are both in the top five greenhouse gas emitters, to use one measure of environmental impact, as is obviously the United States. Both also have over three times the population of the US. For better and worse, both also have much much lower per capita resource consumption than the US.
The take-away is that to create a more sustainable human civilization, resource consumption levels have to stabilize somewhere between US levels and Indian levels--probably far closer to current Indian or Chinese levels than anyone would like--if we are to live within the natural regenerative capacity of the planet.
See how you personally compare at: Greendex: Survey of Sustainable Consumption. If you get over a score of 55 give yourself a pat on the back, you're leading by example.
More on Consumerism:
Brazil and India Top Greendex: USA, Canada and France Finish Last
Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Degradation & Destruction
TreeHugger Talks With James Gustave Speth: Green Consumerism, Taking Action & What Comes After Capitalism