Global Environment

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

Our insatiable material appetites are depleting the earth’s resources at a frightening rate. We are also generating waste faster than it can be processed by the planet’s absorptive systems. According to the United Nations Agenda 21 report, "the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, particularly in industrialized countries."(1) Many of the world’s colossal environmental threats – climate change, ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss (mass species extinction) – are largely the result of developed nations’ unbridled consumption patterns.

And so, the whole puzzle tour boils down to the challenge of determining how much we can consume while keeping the planet healthy, reducing our level of consumption to that limit, then shifting our types of consumption to efficiently get the most fulfilling and equitable "bang for the buck."

The stakes for meeting that challenge are huge. In evermore regions of the world, excessive and polluting consumption have overtaxed ecosystems and led to smog, soil and water table depletion, and poor water quality which increase disease and slash life-spans for the local population.

But even more threatening to humanity as a whole are the "Big 3" global threats. Vertebrate biodiversity is headed downhill as about 34% of total known fish species and 11% of bird species are threatened with extinction.(2) The ozone layer continues to thin, virtually disappearing into a "hole" at each of the earth’s poles, guaranteeing skin cancer increases for decades to come. And then - there's human-induced global warming.

Global climate change probably looms as the biggest threat. Evidence that consumption is the culprit is compelling, and continues to mount. In June of 1999, Nature reported that, based on analysis of Antarctic ice sheets, present-day atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are higher than at any other time in the last 420,000 years. The 1990's are the hottest decade on record, breaking the previous high mark.... held by the 1980's.(3) The specifics of what is in store for our future are less clear. Scientists debate over which cities will be swept underwater and how global warming will impact "weather related disasters" (Worldwatch Institute reports that weather-related disasters in the first 11 months of 1998 caused $89 billion damage globally – far more than the $55 billion damage compiled over the entire decade of the 1980’s(4)), but our necessary course of action is clear: we must act quickly to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Other evidence, though mostly anecdotal, does offer hope that we can shift our consumption and avert disaster. The revival of the bald eagle, panther, and other endangered species shows what a shift in pesticide or land consumption can achieve when we put our minds to it. The Montreal’s Protocol’s banning of chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone depleting chemicals demonstrates the ability of the international community to collaborate when their backs are to the wall. Even climate change received a touch of positive news as, after rising for four years, global carbon emissions dropped 0.5% to 6.32 billion tons in 1998, despite the world economy's 2.5% expansion(5). The decline is attributed to improved energy efficiency and decreased coal use.

But these examples are mostly anecdotal. Efficiency gains are vital and must be pursued, but there’s a limit to the gains that can be reaped by technological improvements. There’s also a big difference between shifting consumption away from a single chemical, such as CFCs or DDT, and fundamentally changing the way we consume. But that’s exactly what we need to do. When 300 shopping bags worth of natural resources are needed to fuel the average American’s lifestyle for one week,(6) when the resources and absorptive capacities of four additional planets are needed to allow everyone on earth to live the lifestyle of the average American,(7) when there’s serious doubt that our grandchildren will enjoy the same opportunities that we did, we can’t play around trying to find patches and quick fixes. We need to reduce our total consumption and shift what we do consume to green products and services so as to minimize environmental impact. The responsibility is massive and individuals, communities, businesses, and governments each must do their share.

The first decade of the third millenium promises to be a defining time. The challenges are daunting, but positive momentum is building. The Center for a New American Dream and its allies are working to elevate sustainable consumption to the forefront of the environmental movement and with some success – the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council have all recently announced campaigns targeting core consumption issues. Will the next generation of leaders steer us onto the path of sustainability or accelerate our drive past the earth’s limits?

Find out in the Youth/Schools Puzzle Piece.


  1. Agenda 21
  2. World Watch Institute, Vital Signs 1998.
  3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, "Climate of 1998 Annual Review" (1999).
  4. Janet N. Abramovitz and Seth Dunn, "Record Year for Weather-Related Disasters" World Watch Institute (1998)
  5. World Watch Institute, "World Carbon Emissions Fall" (1999)
  6. Albert Adriaanse etal., Resource Flows: The Material Basis of Industrial Economies, World Resources Institute, 1997.
  7. Wackernagel etal., "National Natural Capital Accounting with the Ecological Footprint Concept" Ecological Economics June, 1999

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
Comments and Questions: