There are endless metrics to gauge whether the United States is ahead or behind other countries. Finland does education better and cheaper. Russians and central Europeans beat Americans in alcohol consumption. But it takes only five minutes for the average American to earn enough money to buy a pint of beer -- far less time than in any other nation. And, when it comes to meat consumption, only the Australians come close to matching the amount of dead animal we eat in the land of the free and the home of the obese.
Whatever the measure, no one in this country really cares how we stack up against Ethiopia or Uruguay or Vanuatu. That is like comparing the Dodgers to a T-ball team. The competitor we really care about is China.
The U.S. still beats China in movie box office revenue, number of Internet users and spending on the military. But China has leaped ahead in spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. That is quite a dramatic feat, given the amount of CO2 generated by the USA. Still, Americans are far more productive than the Chinese in this arena. With a mere 5 percent of the planet's population, we consume 20 percent of global energy and it is the consumption of all that energy -- largely produced from fossil fuels -- that unleashes all that extra carbon.
World Population Balance, a group that promotes population control as a means of ensuring that human consumption does not outstrip natural resources, offers a useful observation that Americans may want to take to heart: "Next time you hear about a woman in India who has seven children, remember that she'd have to have more than 10 children to match the impact (on resources) of an American woman with just one child!"
This does not imply that Americans should have no children at all, but it does mean we should do all we can to guarantee a better future for those children. That would be a future where our economy no longer relies on the burning of oil and coal, a future where the most extreme effects of climate change have been forestalled by dramatic reductions in carbon emissions.
Much as the obesity epidemic is teaching us we need to eat better and smarter, we need to also go lean in energy consumption. This is not a terrible sacrifice, except for the extracting industries that want to keep us chained to 19th century energy sources. For the United States as a whole, it means moving to the head of the pack in renewable resources, clean energy jobs and high technology.
And if the rest of the world wants to compete with us in that race -- come on, China! -- it would be a very good thing for us all.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. To see more of his work, go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/.