We live in a country where politicians claim that our citizens and industries are in full support of green energy, yet we continue to use fossil fuels as if we possess an overflowing cornucopia of supply. We purchase solar panels constructed from cheap coal, export thousands of tons of electronic waste to developing nations, and are addicted to a throwaway consumer culture. Is our nation truly saving the environment when we are actually polluting the air halfway around the globe, and adopting a lifestyle where it would take the resources of four earths to sustain if everyone around the world lived like us?
Part of the problem is that the United States’ economy is heavily consumer-based, and this in fact fuels GDP growth in many nations around the world. On the surface, this seems like a mutual relationship, however a deeper investigation reveals an inconvenient truth. Our nation is able to purchase certain natural resources so cheaply from countries like China and India that we prefer to consume their products rather than to use our own reserves. This unsustainable demand forces these nations to burn cheap fuels, such as coal, to generate electrical power to supply our needs. Anton Dilo Paul’s writes, “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 65% of coal mined around the world is used in power generation.”  When these manufacturing methods prove profitable, it is very difficult for countries to wean away from heavy reliance on these fuel products. Amy Meyers Jaffe’s research backs up this statement, indicating that nations that seek environmental improvement often find themselves undermined by coal’s great abundance and low production costs.  Paul said too of the little attention that was paid to the effects of coal combustion on air quality prior to the 1970s. Coal-fired power plants release tons of harmful particulates into the atmosphere, including sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide, and the nitrogen oxides. When these gases combine with the water vapor in the upper atmosphere, they form droplets of acids, which then return to the earth in the form of acid rain and cause serious damage to the environment. Though this issue has been eradicated in many first world nations, it is still a major problem in many developing nations that have yet to industrialize. Unfortunately, cheap fuel is extremely appealing during industrialization because of its low cost and high efficiency. Thus, it is difficult to completely prevent acid rain on a global level until a cleaner fuel can equate its cost and efficiency with that of coal.
Image 1: The rapid increase of coal combustion in China and India and the predicted projection over the next decade.
Whether they are handbags, furniture, kitchen appliances, or solar panels, large amounts of coal are required to produce these kinds of products. A small glimpse at how solar panels are made revealed how the process is polluting even for the “greenest” products. In the first main step of panel production, an astonishing 43 kilograms of coal is combusted in order to simply melt the polysilicon rock for crystal growing. This is just one small step among the many tens of steps, each requiring a gargantuan amount of coal being consumed. There are thousands of articles informing us about how efficient solar panels are once put into use, yet little information on how much energy is imputed during construction. Electricity, in the form of coal combustion, is consumed in so many areas of the construction process that it becomes almost impossible to quantify.
Unfortunately, less developed nations often cannot afford stringent regulatory controls like those of the United States and the United Kingdom. According to a study illustrated by Maxwell, India’s coalfields have at least triple to as high as 20 times the amount of particulates that a field in the United Kingdom would have.  Such discrepancies over appropriate emission baselines make it extremely difficult to form a uniform regulation that is worldwide. A less stringent baseline would most likely translate to higher degrees of pollution and higher risks of respiratory diseases. Air pollutants from coal-fired plants are responsible for many health issues among people living near highly industrialized areas. Smaller particulates are able to bury deep into the lungs, which can lead to various lung diseases and eventually heart problems.
To make matters worse, the United States has a throwaway mentality when it comes to consumer goods. In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard writes that 99% of the items we purchase are disposed within six months. This phenomenon is however not a natural process; it was designed to occur. Shortly after World War II, retail analyst Victor Lebow stated, “We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate, ” believing that in order for America’s economy to recover, consumption had to be the way forward. Since then, through planned obsolescence created by corporations, as well as the help of advertisements and other forms of media, consumers are convinced to discard perfectly useful items and buy new ones. As consumers, we only see the purchasing portion of a long process of extraction, production, and disposal. Disposal seems to fall so far beyond our field of vision that most consumers do not even question where their possessions end up.
Waste itself creates an entirely different category of problems, especially in the form of ‘e-waste’. Much of our discarded electronic devices, including computers, telephones, televisions, etc., are shipped to developing nations. The problem is that e-waste is extremely toxic, as it has a high concentration of heavy metals, or even lead in older generations. These heavy metals can leach into waterways and the soil, leading to many health problems, especially in children, including learning disabilities, birth defects, and death. Statistics show that 80% of the children in Guiyu, China suffer from health problems that stem from high levels of lead in their environment. 
In order for the United States to invest in “green” fuels and technology, our corporations expose many citizens of less developed countries to detrimental toxins. Maxwell writes, “The very designation of “developed” and “less developed” nations identifies an enormous disparity in material security and public health status between these groups of countries. It is inherently unfair that much of the economic growth in the developed nations occurred before the impacts of carbon fuels on global climate were appreciated, whereas the less developed nations must take account of these impacts as they seek economic growth. The dilemma of defining an equitable approach to controlling emissions will not easily be resolved.”  Unfortunately, these less developed nations are unable to rise without some assistance from developed nations. As citizens living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, are we willing to trade some of our convenience in exchange for a more sustainable planet?
Our world is currently divided, with wealthier nations wielding a vast majority of the power. This division causes great imbalance in our society and as the next generation of world leaders, we must try to level this steep slope and bring the world to equilibrium. Green technology is an extremely promising field, but in order for it to be truly ‘green’, we should be responsible for ensuring a clean and sustainable construction process from start to finish. Certain measures such as voluntarily tightening environmental regulations and financially supporting implementations in other nations will not only protect citizens, but the environment as well. For now, we as consumers must be aware of what being “green” truly means, and buy and use products accordingly.
1. “Effects of Acid Rain.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed July 16 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.epa.gov/acidrain/effects/
2. “How Solar Panels Are Made.” Discover How Solar Panels Are Made | SolarWorld (2013). SolarWorldAmericas. Accessed July 16 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.solarworld-usa.com/solar-101/making-solar-panels
3. Amy M. Jaffe. “Geopolitics of Energy,” Encyclopedia of Energy (2004), accessed July 15 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B012176480X00473
4. Nancy I. Maxwell. “Environmental Injustices of Energy Facilities,” Encyclopedia of Energy (2004), accessed July 14 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B012176480X004708#a0005
5. Anton D. Paul. “Coal, Fuel and Non-Fuel Uses,” Encyclopedia of Energy (2004), accessed July 14 2014. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B012176480X002904
6. Bruce Piasecki. “Corporate Environmental Strategy,” Encyclopedia of Energy (2004), accessed July 15 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B012176480X005490
7. Lucy McAllister. “The Human and Environmental Effects of E-waste,” Population Reference Bureau (2013). Accessed July 15 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2013/e-waste.aspx
1. Annie Leonard.”Story of Stuff.” The Story Of Stuff Project (2013). Creative Commons License. Accessed July 14 2014. Available from: URL: http://storyofstuff.org/