Green, grow or guilt?
JUDGING from the bun fights at international conferences on the environment, the West appreciates the need to go green while emerging economies prefer growth. However a survey released this week of consumer actions and attitudes overturns this customary narrative.
The latest National Geographic and GlobeScan survey, called the Greendex, shows nearly diametrically opposed behaviours and opinions between people in rich, industrialised countries and poor, developing ones. When the data from 17 countries are plotted on a chart, it forms an eerily consistent, near-linear, roughly 45 degree slope.
Take whether consumers feel “guilty” about their impact on the planet (chart below). Americans, Canadians, Japanese and French feel the least, while Indians, Chinese, Mexicans and Brazilians feel the most. A very similar distribution was apparent for the question of whether citizens of different countries felt more or less “empowered” to change the situation.
Would one have figured that Americans and Chinese would be at the extremes—and in this way? The findings demonstrate a surprisingly large degree of divergences, neatly broken down by the level of development and population.
That consumers in the West have a nastier impact on the environment is obvious: they are richer so consume more, and they are less numerous, so their individual impact is greater when the national figures are scaled for population. Yet there is also a sense that the West cares more about going green, due to its numerous activists groups and its diplomats pushing the issue at climate change talks. The National Geographic / GlobeScan data suggest that the matter is more complicated: the people who apparently lead the most unsustainable lifestyles and might be best able to rectify it, don’t seem to feel very badly about it. That is a bit depressing.
Yet the report shows reasons for optimism too. Five countries recorded an increase in green behaviours since 2010, while only one backtracked. People in the biggest emerging economies—who are also hefty polluters—want to be more sustainable. And among the countries that made the largest improvement in consumer behaviour in the 2012 report is China.
The Greendex ranks the environmental impact and attitudes of 17,000 consumers in 17 countries based on 65 criteria regarding housing, transport, food and goods. An interactive map, a Greendex “calculator” to measure one’s own footprint, the 204-page report and a 12-page summary are online here.