Here’s a quick look by the numbers at where we’re in trouble on key environmental issues. I’ve borrowed a bit from the style of the Harper’s Index, and a bit from those before/after ads for weight loss products. Except that it’s not weight that we’re losing:

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels:

Estimated pre-industrial CO2 levels: 280 parts per million

1958 CO2 levels: 317 parts per million

1990 CO2 levels: 356 parts per million

2009 CO2 levels: 391 parts per million

U.S. air travel passenger miles:

1960: 33.9 billion passenger miles

1990: 358.9 billion passenger miles

2006: 590.6 billion passenger miles

U.S. car travel passenger miles:

1960: 1.145 trillion passenger miles

1990: 3.561 trillion passenger miles

2006: 4.994 trillion passenger miles

(Yes, that’s right: As of the last full year posted by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics, if you count up every mile traveled by every passenger or driver of every car in the U.S., we travelled almost 5 trillion miles on roads in 2006. That means we drove 570 million miles an hour.)

U.S. intercity rail travel passenger miles

1960: 17.1 billion passenger miles

1990: 6.0 billion passenger miles

2006: 5.4 billion passenger miles

Coal consumption:

U.S. coal use, 1980: 702.7 billion tons

U.S. coal use, 2007: 1.129 trillion tons

China coal use, 1980: 678.5 billion tons

China coal use, 2007: 2.893 trillion tons

Worldwide coal use, 1980: 4,127 trillion tons

Worldwide coal use, 2007: 7,193 trillion tons

U.S. oil imports:

Barrels imported, 1960: 590 Million Barrels

Percentage of oil that was imported, 1960: 16.7%

Barrels imported, 2007: 4.395 Billion Barrels

Percentage of oil that was imported, 2007: 58.2%

Number of U.S. presidents that have vowed to cut oil imports since 1960: 11

What, me worry?

Percentage of Americans who think global warming concerns are exaggerated, 1998: 31%

Same polling question, 2009: 41%

Don’t worry, be thrifty

Percentage of Americans who prefer environmental protection even if it harms the economy, 1984: 60%

Same question, asked amidst the recession of 2009: 42%

Catching the last one:

Chesapeake Bay oyster landings, 1880: 10,000,000 bushels

Chesapeake Bay oyster landings, 2006: 45,000 bushels

Are you on the list?

Average annual endangered species listings during the Reagan administration: 32

During the George H.W. Bush administration: 58

During the Clinton administration: 62

During the George W. Bush administration: 8

Still bald, but growing:

Known pairs of bald eagles in 1963: 417

Known pairs of Bald Eagles in 2007, after 35 years’ protection on the endangered list: 11,040

Want not…:

Average amount of food thrown away by each American each day: 1.3 pounds

Dead Sea level:

Year the Ein Gedi Resort opened on the shores of the shrinking Dead Sea: 1970

Length of the trolley ride from the resort to the current shoreline: Nearly ¾ mile

Bayou blowout:

Average annual loss of Louisiana Wetlands due to channeling, subsidence, and erosion: 40 square miles

Projected migration of Louisiana’s coastline by the year 2040: 33 miles inland

Dead last

Rank of “global warming” among 20 domestic policy priorities in a 2009 poll: 20th


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)  

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