Environment suffered as country prospered
September 4, 2001
Now that the economy has slowed, we might want to catch our breath and look back on the damage the economic boom had on the environment.
During the 1990s, Americans enjoyed better living standards than ever before, according to the latest Census reports. The income of the average American household jumped by $11,000 between 1990 and 2000, from $30,056 to $41,343.
As family incomes grew, so, too, did the size of their homes. In 2000, the average new home occupied 2,230 square feet, compared to about 2,030 square feet in 1990. More than one in four homes has seven rooms or more, and one in five new homes exceeds 3,000 square feet, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
And more Americans now own motor vehicles than ever before. More than 90 percent of U.S. households have at least one automobile, van or truck, and nearly one-fifth of all households have three or more vehicles.
Sprawl has dramatically altered the American landscape. Areas that were largely rural only 10 or 15 years ago are now saturated with residential subdivisions, strip malls, fast-food restaurants and other commercial developments. To reach these destinations, the distances traveled by American motorists each year has grown dramatically, from 1.5 trillion total miles in 1980 to 2.6 trillion miles in 1998. And the average U.S. worker's commute to and from work has jumped to 48.6 minutes in 2000, compared to 44.8 minutes in 1990, according to the Times.
These changes have exacted a costly price on the environment.
Greenhouse gas emissions have increased at an alarming rate. With Americans driving more miles every year, the emission of carbon dioxide -- a major byproduct of gasoline use and the leading contributor to global climate change -- has grown proportionally. Total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide rose from 1.35 billion metric tons in 1990 to 1.51 billion in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Given this 12 percent increase, it will become all the more difficult to slow the rise in global temperatures.
Accelerating automobile use is also spurring demand for oil. Total U.S. oil consumption rose by 15 percent between 1990 and 1999, from 17 million to 19.5 million barrels per day, according to the Department of Energy. Because U.S. oil consumption is expected to continue to rise during the current decade, President Bush wants to tap into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other federally protected and environmentally sensitive areas.
The increase in the size of American homes is also contributing to the demand for oil and other sources of energy. Bigger homes mean more demand for heating oil in the winter and electricity for air conditioners during the summer.
What's more, suburban sprawl has also strained our water supply. Many areas of the country are now experiencing drought. And other areas are running out of water as underground aquifers are drained beyond their replenishment rate. By placing increased demand on already overtaxed water systems and by paving over land that once absorbed surface water, suburban growth is further depleting our water supply.
The nation's water problems are likely to become much more severe as the greenhouse effect helps temperatures rise. Increased global temperatures will boost the rate of evaporation from lakes and rivers and gradually diminish the available water supply. Rising temperatures also mean smaller snowpacks on mountains that feed many of the nation's major river systems, including the Colorado and the Columbia rivers.
If we are to enjoy rising living standards as well as protect the natural environment, we must adopt different strategies for land use and transportation. Local developers should replace plans that favor sprawl with plans that favor the clustering of homes and services, along with the increased availability and attractiveness of public transit. Our homes and businesses must also be made more energy and water efficient.
We must balance our economic gains against the damage we are doing to the environment -- damage that will cost us dearly in the years to come.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and author of "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict" (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co., 2001). He can be reached at email@example.com.