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U.S. Feels Less Guilt About Environmental Choices


You might think that Americans, renowned for consuming a disproportionate share of the Earth's resources, would feel the most guilty about using up those resources. Not so, according to a new study. NPR's Richard Harris reports on the latest findings from a National Geographic project called Greendex.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The survey seeks out consumers in 17 nations around the world and asks them to describe how much they drive and fly, how they heat their homes, what kinds of foods they consume, etcetera, and how they feel about all of that. No surprise, Americans consume the most, whereas consumers in poorer nations have a comparatively smaller environmental footprint. But it's the people's attitudes that caught the attention of Terry Garcia at National Geographic.

TERRY GARCIA: People who have the lightest footprint, the least impact on the environment as a result of their consumer choices, also tend to feel the guiltiest about their impact on the environment.

HARRIS: Those reporting the most guilt lived in India, China and Brazil. Participants aren't average citizens of those nations, to be sure, but consumers who have internet access and other modern amenities.

GARCIA: And then when you look at the United States, where our consumption choices are the least sustainable, we also feel the least amount of guilt.

HARRIS: That may be because people in the developing world are more attuned to the environmental consequences of modern life. They typically have dirtier air and water. Eric Whan is from GlobeScan, the company that carried out this online survey.

ERIC WHAN: It's very much the living and breathing of environmental issues in the emerging markets that, I think, is leading to some action and to some concern. But at the same time, to some tension and conflict within people when you talk about their aspirations for development and wealth and consumption.

HARRIS: It turns out that people in developing nations actually want to own big houses and want to drive fancy cars. So it may not be their green guilt holding them back. Instead, they find themselves with less money in the bank to live the American-style consumer life. And Garcia says when you ask people whether they as individuals have the power to make a difference in their environmental impact, you get a curious response.

GARCIA: The consumers who have the lightest footprint also feel the most helpless about affecting the environment. Whereas in the United States, where our consumer choices are the least sustainable, we also feel the most empowered.

HARRIS: Individuals say they can make a difference if they want to. Maybe they just don't want to. Or maybe it's not a simple matter of consumer choice. Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University, has conducted the benchmark global environmental poll for the Gallup organization. He says you can ask people whether they'd rather drive or take the bus, but that answer depends a lot on whether they have a car or live near a bus line.

RILEY DUNLAP: Even in the United States we have a very difficult time coming up with behaviors that really measure a person's commitment versus the availability.

HARRIS: Pollsters like Dunlap generally don't put too much faith in surveys like this, in part because respondents tend not to tell the truth about their own behaviors relating to the environment.

DUNLAP: Some data is nice and you see some interesting patterns, but we clearly need to view this with caution.

HARRIS: On the other hand, the National Geographic Greendex does provoke discussion and provides leads for carefully controlled research.

Richard Harris, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.