Americans: Leading the Way, Destroying The Planet.  What's The World To Do?

Americans: Leading the Way, Destroying The Planet.  What's The World To Do?

It wasn't enough for George Bush to boycott the Earth Summit. He sent negotiators flanked by big business to Johannesburg to destroy it. And Bush had other help as well.  He had lots of support from ordinary folks back home. Average Americans are destroying the planet with their fossil fuel lifestyle. And they don't seem to care how it affects the world around them.

The tiny island of Tuvalu in the South Pacific has given up hope. It's evacuating its population of 14,000 to New Zealand. The 16-square-mile island is sinking into the ocean due to rising sea levels caused by global warming. The world is under assault by catastrophic floods, fires, and droughts. And most people are blaming the United States. 

Oh sure, other countries also contribute to climate change. But given that the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent to the world's carbon dioxide emissions while representing only 4.6 percent of the population...we are clearly leading the way. And although it's common practice to place all the blame at the feet of America's corrupt corporations and spineless politicians, that becomes increasingly difficult when SUVs now account for 23 percent of all new car sales nationwide and 47 percent in California alone. 

So what's the world to do? How can foreign peoples and their governments make an impression on apathetic Americans? More talks? More summits? Not now. The Earth Summit just showed how easily it can be sabotaged. Short of violence, which is commonly used for good and ill by American presidents both past and present, foreign governments and individuals could expand on a three-part strategy already in limited use -- sue, boycott, and get 'personal' with Americans.

Let's start in reverse order. First: get personal ... man-to-man. Let Americans you meet hear your outrage. Violate our comfort zone. You're not asking for less consumerism from Americans, just clean and green rather than coal and oil ... or at least cars that get over 20 miles per gallon for Pete's sake. Many countries are forging ahead with substantial wind, solar, and fuel cell projects, while George Bush promotes coal, oil, and nuclear energy. And Americans let him get away with that.

Next: boycott American goods and services. Don't prop up our economy with your investments and consumer spending. Already there's a fairly successful boycott in many parts of the world against (mostly U.S.) genetically modified crops. And boycotts certainly worked to liberate South Africa from apartheid. Capitalism responds when business takes a hit.

And for the third and final strategy: foreign nations and individuals can sue America. There's growing interest in international environmental litigation. And the island of Tuvalu may lead the way. It's considering lawsuits against the United States and Australia for refusing to ratify the 1997 Kyoto protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming. 

Europeans are also up in arms after a summer of catastrophic floods, and they're blaming America, reports Paul Martin of the Washington Times. He writes, "Gallus Cadonau, the managing director of the Swiss Greina Foundation for the preservation of Alpine rivers and streams, has urged that a punitive tariff on imports from the United States be imposed to force cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions." That's not a lawsuit or a boycott, but it's coming close to both.

For the first time, Americans are suing our own institutions for causing global warming. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the city of Boulder, Colorado, filed the suit against the Export Import Bank (Ex-Im) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), alleging that these taxpayer funded lending institutions illegally provided more than $32 billion in financing and insurance for oil fields, pipelines and coal-fired power plants without assessing their contribution to global warming and their impact on the U.S. environment as required under key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It's about time.

International environmental law was the focus of a meeting of more than a hundred judges and lawyers at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. The "Johannesburg Principles on the Role of Law and Sustainable Development" were adopted at the Global Judges Symposium organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). It states, "...the fragile state of the global environment requires the Judiciary, as the guardian of the Rule of Law, to boldly and fearlessly implement and enforce applicable international and national laws ..."  Nice words and it's a start, but without U.S. support the Johannesburg Principles will certainly have rough going.

Americans live in geographic and cultural isolation. Getting their attention is a tough assignment. Getting them tuned-in to saving the planet may be even tougher. But the time for politeness is over. People and nations around the world are in a battle of survival largely because of American reliance on fossil fuels. And if foreign countries and their people have to get in our face, or boycott our businesses, or sue us in order to save themselves, then so be it. 

If these strategies don't work, the case for violence will be made. For the peoples of the world, protecting the environment is a question of life and death, not comfort or convenience.

Lynn Landes is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues. She is the founder of Zero Waste America, a Web-based environmental organization, and posts her work on


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