This Map Shows Ecosystems Most Affected by U.S. Consumption

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 4, 2017 1:16 pm

A map of biodiversity hotspots affected by U.S. consumption. Areas in darker purple are those more affected on land, while blue and green indicated areas affected in the ocean. (Credit: Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto)

For all the talk of American manufacturing, it’s pretty difficult to find products that come solely from the U.S. anymore. In the quest for new markets and resources, the global economy has stretched its tentacles to far-flung corners of the globe, pulling in resources and harnessing the power of cheap labor.

Unfortunately, many of the most economically lucrative regions are also hotspots of biodiversity, harboring species close to the brink of extinction. It’s the classic division between economic and environmental preservation, and researchers recently attempted to illustrate how consumption habits in the U.S. impact delicate ecosystems around the planet.

Following Trade Routes Back

Using a model of global trade, researchers from Norway and Japan traced products from 15,000 industries back to their origins, and compared that to the ranges of some 6,800 threatened species using data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Birdlife International. The end result is a map highlighting areas of the world that are both rich in both biodiversity and lucrative resources.

The researchers compiled separate visualizations using consumption data from the U.S., China, the E.U. and Japan. Each illustrates the different supply chains each economy relies on to source their goods, although a few regions seem to be imperiled by consumers from all over the world equally. The researchers published their work Wednesday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Expected and Unexpected

In the U.S., for example, Southeast Asia and its oceans are unsurprisingly a region of high environmental impact. Our influence also extends to Spain and Portugal, however, where the researchers say a number of bird and fish species are at risk. As the world’s next biggest economy, China also relies on areas across the world for its goods, particularly Myanmar and Mongolia, as well as western Asia in general. Consumption patterns in the E.U. are felt most heavily in Africa and western and Southeast Asia.

Even the U.S. is not immune to biodiversity risks from consumption. Although we’re not as heavily affected as less affluent parts of the world, the eastern part of the country is impacted by consumption in China, the E.U. and Japan.

Researchers also broke down the threats by type: looking at the U.S. impact in Asia, our agricultural consumption affects Malaysia and Cambodia most heavily, while residential and commercial development endangers the species-rich waters surrounding Indonesia. What’s more, many of the threats are concentrated — the 5 percent of sea area that is most affected includes 60 percent of affected species.


A breakdown of threats by causes for the U.S. The intensities are not relative to each other, and can’t be compared between maps. (Credit: Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto)

Researchers say they can also calculate the level of threat different countries pose to species. Two percent of the risk faced by the stub-footed toad in Brazil, for example, is due to logging operations spurred on by consumption in the U.S., according to the researchers calculations.

We should be careful not to make overly specific conclusions from the map, but it does serve as a tool to highlight places on the planet that would be best served by conservation efforts.

Previous attempts to link consumption in one place with environmental impacts in another were only able to give data on a country-wide level. Because species’ habitats often cross country borders or exist in only a small portion of a country, this data wasn’t detailed enough to tell researchers which species were truly at risk.

With this new information, they hope that conservation dollars can follow trade routes back to their origins, to help the areas where consumption causes its greatest impacts. As the thinking goes, if U.S. economic activity disproportionally affects a particular area, we should be spending the most money on conservation there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    End all US charity of every kind at every level in every place- surplus food and cheap pharmaceuticals to military presence and financial stabilization. There is your perfect world. We’ll be OK while the rest of you bloodily starve and fester back to the Middle Ages. Ta da! ecoörgasm.

    • Simon Whyatt

      Ironically, stopping most of the charitable organisations would probably actually be a good start. I suggest you watch Poverty Inc.

      In general, however, your comment displays such an astounding level of ignorance that the mind actually boggles!

      • OWilson

        We all have a footprint that affects our environment, those resources from around the world are being utilized to house, feed, clothe you and provide the energy for your appliances like the computer you are using to complain.

        Man has been exploiting his environment since the first farmer cleared a field.

        It is only some folks who never connected the dots before, who are now just discovering how interrelated their snowflake lifestyle really is.

        Do you live in a house, shop in the local pharmacy, supermarket, department store?

        Ever wonder where all that great stuff comes from? :)

      • Uncle Al

        James Kunstler, – Blog, Forecast > Forecast 2017: The Wheels Finally Come Off. Timestamped January 1, 2017 7:00 pm. Re The collapse of complex societies

    • Iuliana Sava

      Bloody ignorant. Your medication? No, thanks! Your junk food? No, thanks! Keep them and keep all your ignorant and arrogant thoughts too. The rest of the world would be starving and and be going back to the Middle Ages whitout you? Uncle Al, please go get your Constitution guaranteed gun, put it between your eyes and press the trigger. If you think that the USA is an extraordinary place, you probably did not finish college, never left the country or watch too much tv. Not everybody worships your country and trust me your social protection, education and health systems suck. So keep your medical experiments for your own people, and your cheap junk food for your amazingly fit youngsters. (Sarcasm) Have a great ignorant life!

  • Icabod

    When one buys an item from, say China, the map shows the environmental impact by the United States. How’s that again?
    Doesn’t China have any impact at all? If the item goes to Europe, there’s no impact?
    What about American exports to other nations? Again, no environmental impact?
    What about producing similar maps for China and other nations? Won’t they be much the same?

    • OWilson

      The U.S. is the Great Satan, responsible for deflowering the virgin planet, don’t you know!

      It’s the narrative, that unfortunately, a large number of Americans have been fed since grade school, and accounts for the rather large number of enemies you have, both domestic and foreign, and the current malaise you find yourselves in today.

      Perhaps one day a leader will emerge and change that self defeating narrative.

      Maybe he already has?

    • Simon Whyatt

      This is akin to the argument of a 5 year old child getting caught doing something bad, then responding “but Johnny did it too!”.

      I live in Europe, and we are responsible for much damage too. Is it equal to/greater than/less than the US/Asia? Who cares, we still need to aim to reduce it regardless.

      Rather than trying to squirm out of responsibility by saying “maybe we’re not the worst” (though you probably are), why not aim to lead by example and reduce negative impact on the rest of the world, irrespective of what other countries do?

      • OWilson

        After you, Alphonse! :)


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