Survey: The bigger your impact on the planet, the less guilty you feel about it

July 12, 2012

One frequent view of environmentalism is that it's mostly rich Europeans and Americans who are wringing their hands about sustainability and organic farming and climate change and the rest. Meanwhile, over in China and India, it's all hard-headed realism, with people worried primarily about economic growth. Environmental guilt, the argument goes, is a luxury only the wealthy can afford.


(Doug Kanter / Bloomberg News)

But according to a new survey (pdf), the exact opposite may well be the case. National Geographic and GlobeScan recently polled some 17,000 people in 17 countries around the world about both their consumption habits and "green guilt." And, as it turns out, the most eco-conscientious consumers were in the developing world, in places like China and India. And these countries tend to have the most green guilt.

Meanwhile, those consumers with bigger environmental footprints — in countries such as the United States, Germany and Canada — felt the least self-concscious about their habits. Here's the chart:

The "Greendex score" ranks the environmental impact of individuals on a variety of metrics, from housing to transportation habits to food to consumer goods. Obviously, wealth matters a lot here. A middle-class German who can afford to buy a car and eat plenty of steak is going to produce more carbon emissions and have a bigger impact on the planet than, say, a poorer Chinese worker who still has to make do with a bicycle and fish. So the average person in a developed country will have a bigger impact on the planet.

Granted, China and India as a whole have a very large impact on the world's resource use and atmospheric carbon concentrations — precisely because there are so many people in each country, even if their average footprints are smaller. So perhaps that accounts for some of the guilt.

Meanwhile, here's another interesting graph. The average survey respondent in China and India is much more pessimistic about the fate of the planet than the average Canadian or American:

Nothing like that unabashed American optimism! Then again, even if a big chunk of people around the world are fatalistic about the world's environmental problems, they're still trying to improve. The report notes that five countries saw an uptick in green behavior in 2012 (this could be anything from recycling to using public transit to eating a less carbon-intensive diet), with the largest uptick seen in China.

(Link via the Economist's Graphic Detail blog.)

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Dylan Matthews · July 12, 2012