George Monbiot has an article in Tuesday’s Guardian reporting on the National Geographic’s Greendex Survey. This survey studies the environmental sustainability of people in 14 countries. It was conducted in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, and adds up to a stark warning both about our attitudes to the environment and about the way our attitudes adjust to suit self-interest. It uses a variety of measures to assess ‘environmentally friendly consumer behaviour’.
The top-scoring consumers of 2012 are in the developing economies of India, China and Brazil, in descending order. Those in emerging economies continue to round out the top tier of the Greendex ranking, while the lowest scores are all earned by consumers in industrialized countries. American consumers’ behavior still ranks as the least sustainable of all countries surveyed since the inception of the study, followed by Canadian, Japanese and French consumers.
It also asked people how guilty they feel about their environmental impact.
Consumers in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China and India tend to be most concerned about issues like climate change, air and water pollution, species loss, and shortages of fresh water—all factors affecting the planet’s ability to support life. Consumers in these large emerging economies are the most likely to report that environmental problems are having a negative impact on their health today. In contrast, the economy and the cost of energy and fuel elicit the most concern among American, French and British consumers.
The more you have, the more important money becomes. My guess is that in poorer countries empathy has not been so dulled by decades of mindless consumption.
Overall it is the countries with the most sustainable lifestyles that feel most aware and guilty. Germany feels least guilt, followed by the USA, Australia and Britain. Monbiot comments:
This is the opposite of what a thousand editorials in the corporate press tell us: that people cannot afford to care until they become rich. The evidence suggests we cease to care only when we become rich.
It is well known that, the more money we have, the more concerned we become about the amount of money we have got. This survey reveals a parallel trend: the more damage we do to the environment, the less we notice it.
This is a psychological point: it tells us about human nature, not about what we should do. However, given the amount of damage being done to the environment by industrialised societies, it suggests that the more successful we are at getting the other things we want, the less we will care about the environment.
In every society, learning that we cannot get what we want is a hard lesson. Learning that we want the wrong things anyway is even harder.