Six Informative Statistics


By Peter Schwartzman

{Note: This will be the first in a series of list-oriented contributions. Readers are asked to submit their own entries and rankings.}

350. This number represents the acceptable concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (in parts per million, ppm) according to Dr. James Hansen, Head of NASA. He argues vociferously that if we don’t get global levels to this threshold soon, we risk an ice-free planet (which among other things would increase global sea-level by more than 200 feet). Unfortunately, the atmospheric levels of CO2 are well above this threshold and have been so for some time; current levels are ~390 ppm. While the catastrophic changes that would occur as a result of an ice-free planet aren’t likely in the next 50-100 years, Hansen and others warn that 350 ppm must be the goal for the near future. Otherwise, we might not be able to turn the process around (i.e., enough CO2 will be in the atmosphere to make large scale ice sheet melting irreversible). Hansen calls for the immediate phase out of coal, as the best means to reach this goal.

2,310,984 and growing. Unbelievably, this is how many people are currently held in U.S. prisons or jails. This is more than any nation in the world. In fact, though the U.S. is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25% of all the world’s prisoners. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of all countries and almost fivefold higher than the world’s average (Senator Jim Webb, of Virginia, in Parade, 3/29/09). Worse yet, 4.7% of black men and 1.8% of Hispanic men are held in prison or jail, compared to only 0.7% of white men; these numbers more than double when one looks only at men between the ages of 20 and 30 (U.S. Department of Justice). How can we claim to be the “land of the free” with statistics like this?

9,237. Between Russia and the United States, this is how many active nuclear warheads they have. All other countries combined have less than 900. Just when you thought the Cold War was over, the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan has many experts on high alert, and now along comes North Korea into the fray. Noteworthy as well, these weapons are much larger than the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But are we safer?

            The U.S. and Russia have both reduced their nuclear arsenals since the 1990s but the pace is too slow for many, and nuclear proliferation seems to continue unabated. Just last year, the U.S. Congress voted to approve a nuclear technology transfer deal with India. This agreement understandably raised red flags in Pakistan, and recent U.S. bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan (its neighbor to the West) certainly doesn’t lessen their anxiety. Furthermore, what is the U.S. doing providing nuclear technology to one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which dates back to 1968? (North Korea, Israel and Pakistan are the other three non-signees.)

1. What if I told you that there is one country in the world that refuses to sign treaties and international agreements pertaining to environmental health and protection? Would you correctly guess which one it is? Consider these agreements. The Kyoto Protocol (which went into effect in 2005) attempts the “"stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Among the very few countries that hasn’t ratified Kyoto, we find the United States, Chad, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. The Biodiversity Convention (BC, adopted in 1992) has three goals: (1) to conserve biodiversity worldwide; (2) to sustainably use biological resources; and, (3) the “fair and equitable sharing” of genetic resources (such as medicines derived from plants). Currently, 192 countries have ratified the BC except for the United States and the Holy See (aka, the Vatican). The Stockholm Convention (entered into force in 2004) now bans about 20 dangerous chemicals from use (including, atrazine, lindane, etc.). Over 150 countries have ratified it, including most European nations. Italy, Russia, and once again, the United States are among the notable exceptions. (See more at: <>.) What about the Basel Convention? This international accord (commenced in 1992) sets out to restrict the dissemination of hazardous waste across national boundaries. Currently, the Convention has 172 national Parties. Surprise (hardly), the United States isn’t one of them. So, the country that stands out in tacit opposition to so many international agreements is yours truly, the United States. Is it any wonder that the world’s people think the U.S. is not “playing by the rules”? Also, how is it that we commonly hear that the U.S. is the environmental leader in the world?

 45 million. This is the conservative estimate of the number of people in the United States who currently don’t have health insurance. When one adds the underinsured, the number goes up several tens of millions more. Even among those working, 20% lack health insurance (AP, 3/24/09). This is shameful in the richest country in the world. As you may have heard, the United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t provide universal health coverage to its citizens. Stranger still, we spend more on health care than any other country, more than two times the median amount spent in other industrialized countries. Is it any wonder then that many of us go to Canada or Mexico to buy legal drugs? Is there any wonder why many lower and middle class people in the U.S. use emergency rooms as their first line of health defense? How costly is this practice? Additionally, perhaps there is a connection between the billions that we spend on nuclear weapons and our collective inability to provide health care to our people. Hmm, something to look into.

1.  One planet Earth. This may seem trite but it bears repeating. This is all we have folks. We aren’t going to be moving to the Moon (with no atmosphere) or Venus (with 90-times the atmosphere as Earth) anytime soon. So, the more we poison, despoil, degrade, or destroy this planet, the worse it will be for us and future generations. But you know the more time and energy we spend cleaning up, caring for, and trying to live in a sustainable way with our planet, the better our and our children's lives will be. Lack of focus on these insights serves nobody well. There is no time to waste. Is there?