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Anglo-Saxon bigfoots and the Happy Planet Index

The other day my husband IMed me, only half-joking, “f**king Anglo-Saxons”. It seems we English-speaking countries, for the most part, have the world’s worst carbon footprints.

Let me preface this by admitting that I didn’t even know that I was part of any tribe larger than America until moving to Spain. My first month here I was startled at hearing someone, while pulling out cds from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, proclaim their love for “musica anglo-sajon” (Anglo-Saxon music).

I had heard the WASP term plenty in the U.S., but to be suddenly lumped in with all English-speaking peoples was something new and the fact that we had our own culture surprised me (it’s not really an ethnic term, but cultural: apparently we have our own humor, food, fashion, etc.). Though to be honest, I seemed to have been missing a lot of cultural groups before becoming an ex-pat; I’d never thought much about the “Latin” people of Europe until hearing my husband connect to the French or Italian culture.

What inspired my husband’s sudden comment regarding us Anglos wasn’t due to one of our trips to the U.S. or Canada where he is continually moved by all the large cars and endless freeways to sprawling Australia where even in beautiful Sydney we were surprised at how difficult it is to “commute” across town without a car.

His grand cultural generalization was inspired less by a personal observation and more by a spreadsheet: the list of CO2 emissions per person by country. Here you can see that after the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf (along with Luxembourg and its big steel industry and small populace), the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita are: the United States (10), Canada (11), Norway (12) and Australia (13).

The Commonwealth Connection

If you discount Norway for its petroleum production (though how accountable a country should be for what it produces is the subject of a great Economist article), you’re left with three Anglo-Saxon countries: the U.S., Canada and Australia.

My husband Nico, in one of his latest posts on this same topic, admits that these countries- like Norway- also have heavily polluting industries: petroleum, including the great “tar sands” of Canada; Canada’s paper industry; intensive agriculture and livestock breeding in Australia; Australia’s mining; and in the U.S., intensive agriculture and ranching, petroleum extraction, mining and heavy industry.

But he points out that there is one point in common between these three nations that they don’t share with the large oil-producing countries. The U.S., Canada and Australia have a huge source of emissions unrelated to their national industries: their own population.

The large Anglo-Saxon carbon footprint: bigfoot?

At lunch last week on the day that Nico was writing his related blog post, he mentioned- in between trying to convince our daughter not to blow her yogurt back out through her mouth- that one of the biggest obstacles in our fight against climate change is the big Anglo-Saxon ecological footprint.

“It’s just obvious when you visit cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia”- all countries in which we have family- “they have a lot in common: bigger cars, bigger distances to travel between cities, bigger suburbs and bigger houses.” And he added, “and most people live in single family homes which are inherently less efficient”.

Later, he followed up his diatribe with an analysis of the data (and my husband loves data, the Economist’s World Factbook is some of his favorite reading material). First, he went to the list of CO2 emissions by country to compare the Anglo bigfoots with his homeland:

  • Canada, with nearly an identical Gross National Product and population as Spain, emits nearly double the greenhouse gases, despite the big growth in emissions in Spain in the past 15 years (mostly due to industrial development).
  • Australia, with a population and economy half the size of Spain, emits nearly the same amount of greenhouse gases.

I saw the chart and was surprised by how Germany, what I saw as such a “clean”, “green” country- at least judging from their huge support of solar panels and renewables- was sixth on the list, only after China, the U.S., Russia, India and Japan. I brought this up at dinner.

Nico- his head always full of facts for a rebuttal- explained that Germany has been the world’s main exporter of goods, only recently has China surpassed them, and with that role they have a lot of big, polluting industry.

What surprised my European husband was that Canada followed Germany on the list of emissions, when this North American nation has a much smaller economy and population (82 million Germans, 40 million Canadians) than Europe’s economic powerhouse.

The old Anglo-Saxon metropolis

Since it was Anglo-Saxon culture on trial, I argued, why not look at the United Kingdom which was a relatively respectable (in comparison with the other Anglophile countries) 37th on the list of CO2 emissions per capita.

While Nico admitted that Canada’s old motherland has an economy double the size of Canada’s and 20 million more people, but still emits less carbon than its North American counterpart, he argued that the UK is in Europe and needs to be compared to the rest of the continent. After all, Europe may earn carbon-free points for just having a history of being builtpre-automobile, but there is more to their continental sensibility for sustainability when you start going country by country.

If you look at emissions per capita, Great Britain (#37), pollutes more per person than the rest of the big European economies: Germany (#38), Spain (#51), Italy (#52) and a surprising France (#63), the carbon footprint of its inhabitants is far below the rest of the G7 or G20 countries.

For a direct comparison, the “old Anglo-Saxon metropolis” (Nico’s wording in his blog post on the topic in Spanish) has roughly the same-sized population and economy as France, but carbon emissions are much higher.

Sprawl as the American Dream

So if the anglophone nations are coming up short on sustainability, is there a correlation between the Anglo-Saxon culture (population, consumption per capita, transportation culture, urban development, relationship between “development” and “consumption of resources”) and their relatively high level of CO2 emissions?

It’s tough to find quantitative studies on something like “Anglo-Saxon wasteful culture”, but I did find an interesting Wikipedia entry on the oft-cited measure of sustainability: urban sprawl. It notes a “consumer preference for sprawl” in many Anglo communities.

Or more specifically, it cites planning and economics professor Peter Gordon as arguing that “many households in the United States, Canada, and Australia, especially middle and upper class families, have shown a preference for the suburban lifestyle”. I couldn’t find a reference, but anecdotally I would agree with the generalization.

I remember first seeing my country through my husband’s eyes. We were driving through Sonoma County which I find particularly attractive with the rolling hills and vineyards dotting the landscape. He agreed that the weather and vegetation reminded him of Spain’s Castile region, but he was surprised that there were houses everywhere.

“So you can just build anywhere you want?,” he asked me. The question surprised me. I had never considered that there would be any other way to build than to buy a piece of land and build on it, but here in Spain everything is zoned so even suburban and rural communities don’t sprawl, and houses don’t scatter, like ours do.

While Nico feels an immediate distrust of our spread-out-ness, there are Anglos who feel it’s part of their heritage. A politician from suburban Detroit defines sprawl as the American Dream or as “new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams”.

Are Anglos happier?

It was when I attempted to follow up on whether we’re really any happier with our respective cultural mores that I found the first mention of “Anglo-Saxon” and sustainability.

It was actually a British think tank that came to the self-critical conclusion that- when comparing the efficiency of European countries for their Happy Planet Index- “countries that have most closely followed the Anglo-Saxon, strongly market-led economic model show up as the least efficient on the Index”.

The UK ranked a poor 21st, out of 30,- on the New Economic Foundation’s index which compared countries for how efficiently they’re able to use resources to provide for relatively long and happy lives. NEF policy director Andrew Simms took these findings as a wake-up call that it’s time to move away from the Anglo-Saxon economic model.

“These findings question what the economy is there for. What is the point if we burn vast quantities of fossil fuels to make, buy and consume ever more stuff, without noticeably benefiting our well-being? We know that someone is just as likely to have high life satisfaction while living within their environmental means, as someone who recklessly over-consumes. So, what is preventing us from radically changing direction, and reaping the benefits?”

Perhaps the toughest part of radically changing direction is recognizing your own “culture”. For me, in many respects, discovering that there’s even another way to live, eat, travel, etc. took learning that I was an “Anglo-Saxon”.