I’m Virginian by birth, Southern by the Grace of God, and Washingtonian by choice. But my work as an energy and environmental journalist has shown me the way I live defines me as American. I drive just about everywhere. I recycle most of my trash, but don’t go out of my way to buy sustainable products. I definitely want my electricity to come from cleaner sources but”¦I can’t quite bring myself to pay extra for what my utility calls “environmental benefits.” And as I travel the world, covering the ways we get our energy and change our planet, I realize that my everyday choices mean I am utterly and thoroughly American.
Energy is one of the most popular products here in Consumer Nation. We have monolithic TV’s that suck power even when they’re turned off, Imperial-Cruiser-sized SUV’s that get single-digit MPG’s, and palatial homes we chill in the Summer and toast in the Winter. Easy to see why we’ve always been the world’s hungriest energy consumer and, not coincidentally, the world’s biggest carbon emitter (the stuff that comes from burning coal or oil, or wood for that matter, and does crummy things to our environment).
Always, that is, until the last decade. That’s when we were eclipsed by the People’s Republic of China. In both categories.
Last year, I saw firsthand how China is chewing through all that energy and spitting out all those emissions. The good news? 1.3-billion Chinese consume far less energy per capita than 310-million Americans. The bad news? Tens of millions of Chinese are fleeing rural areas and flocking to cities, embracing the comforts of AC and smart phones and the automobile.
Yep. More and more Chinese are becoming more and more American.
On the other hand, the way China conducts its energy policy (heck, the fact that it even has an energy policy) is unlike our American approach. When Beijing decides to lead the world in solar energy or plant wind turbines in the China Sea, there’s no legislature or green group or Not-In-My-Back-Yard band of neighbors to offer substantial resistance. But cheap labor, dubious environmental standards, and xenophobic trade policies do have their drawbacks.
So as China or perennial next-big-thing economies like Brazil and India start catching up to (or surpassing) U.S. energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy investment, maybe we all need to act a little less like Americans.
The right mix of international innovation, personal responsibility, and coherent energy policy sure seems like the right place for America to start.
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