It’s time to halt the damage of the U.S. consumerist culture – a key contributor to the climate crisis

by Haley Morrison

It’s time for the United States, the largest historical contributor to global climate change, to take a leading role in climate action and accountability, especially by reducing its use of natural resources. According to the World Bank the U.S. made up only about 4% of the global population as of 2020.1 When we juxtapose this percentage with American consumption levels, it is clear that consumption is wildly disproportionate. Even when compared to other large, wealthy countries, Americans tend to eat, buy, and choose less sustainable options.  For example, the U.S. uses 16% of the world’s energy, while the entire European Union, which makes up 6% of the global population, uses just about 4%.2 Americans’ consumption habits — a result of a consumerist culture — have led to our country’s massive carbon footprint and impact on climate change. Unfortunately, the time left to mitigate climate change is rapidly dwindling. Significant scientific data indicates that if the U.S. does not take action now to reverse course, the negative impact of climate change will be devastating, especially to people in other, often poorer countries.

Transportation and diet are two areas of American life that illustrate our disproportionate use of resources. The reliance on personal vehicles in the U.S. (due in part to unreliable public transportation, and roads ill-equipped to safely accommodate walking and bicycling) is the leading cause of huge amounts of fossil fuel emissions. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reported that in 2017 Americans consumed 20% of the world’s petroleum, more than the combined consumption by all European countries.3 “A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.”4 When you multiply this amount by the 107,180,635 registered “private and commercial automobiles” in the U.S., the impact of cars on the environment is undeniable.5 Americans place an enormous social and economic emphasis on cars, and this could soon become a norm seen all over the globe as other countries become wealthier. Indeed, private vehicle ownership in China’s cities has increased from 2.5 million in 1995 to 140 million in 2015.6  If countries across the globe follow the pattern demonstrated by the U.S., and more recently, China, the damage from personal automobiles on the environment will become even more apparent in the years to come.

The American diet, with its focus on meat and eating large amounts of food, is a prime example of the way U.S. societal norms contribute to climate change. Our lifestyle has heavily contributed to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which negatively impacts everyone on the planet. In 2010, Americans were eating 23% more daily calories than they were in 1970, according to a Pew Research Center report.7 The American tendency to waste food (either by throwing away perfectly good food as a result of perceived “spoilage,” failure to compost, or simply buying more than one can actually eat) is an undeniable driver of climate change. In 2018, more food ended up in landfill than any other material.8

Decomposing food generates methane, a notorious GHG. From early in the country’s history, the accessibility and relative low price of meat has been a huge contributor to American consumption habits. Although meat consumption in America has actually declined over the years,9 Americans still consumed more meat than residents of any other country in the world.

The process of raising and farming meat (especially red meat like pork and beef) is a large source of carbon dioxide and methane production. Beef is by far the most damaging, and emits 20 times more GHG than plant-based proteins, while chicken (often thought of as a “greener” option than red meat) emits 3 times more GHG than plant-based proteins.10 Beyond the danger of GHGs, farming meat-producing animals also requires a considerable amount of grains, fresh water, and land.

Although China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the U.S. remains the second greatest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and has historically polluted longer and much more on a per capita basis.11 These measurements include the emissions produced within a country’s borders. The fact that many manufactured goods are made in China contribute to its reported high GHG emissions. However, while these goods may be produced in China, they are shipped to, used, and ultimately disposed of in other countries.12 Failing to consider the various factors that contribute to a country’s GHG emission levels results in an incomplete and inaccurate assessment of a country’s contribution to GHG levels.

Despite the U.S. contribution to climate change, the looming physical effects, such as drought, extreme temperatures, change in rainfall patterns, and abnormal weather are being felt most acutely not by Americans but by people living in developing countries by inhibiting economic growth and increasing the rates of urbanization and poverty.13  As extreme weather intensifies, it will become harder for the poor to escape poverty. Their situations will become more dire as they contend with other societal and economic setbacks. Many poor people live in arid places in Africa and Asia, places that are already susceptible to unpredictable precipitation that can cause drought and flood. The best way to keep the divide between the rich and poor from widening through a deteriorating climate is for developed nations to reduce their emissions.

The U.S. has created a model of economic development that emphasizes a constant desire for more. This model deserves to be challenged, especially when it would be so unfair to ask less developed countries to heavily reduce their own emission levels… levels that are low relative to those produced by the U.S.

Climate friendly behavior must be implemented and normalized in American society in order to offset damage done as a result of American norms and culture. Yet, while it is important for individuals to take action to preserve the environment, real change cannot rely solely on individual efforts, but rather through collective efforts to pass meaningful legislation and hold corporations and governments accountable for their actions. The U.S. must take a leading role in climate change mobilization and become a role model for other countries by making measurable commitments to reduce emissions and actually sticking to them.

Haley Morrison is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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