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What You Buy Is Permanently Changing The World. Here’s How

The way we consume things in America deeply affects environments half a world away.

What You Buy Is Permanently Changing The World. Here’s How
[All Images: via Nature]

In a way, it’s the ultimate data design challenge: mapping not only the global economy, but how it impacts vanishing biodiversity on earth.

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It’s not just where your bag of coffee comes from. It’s not even where the glue on the label originated, or where the factory that makes the bag dumps its runoff. It’s linking each piece of a product, often constituting hundreds of discrete details, back to origin points that span the globe and impact thousands of distinct threatened species. It that sense, it’s mapping the world. It’s a tall order, but an emerging field of research is tackling it, attempting to reverse-engineer the unthinkably complex modern world before it’s too late.

The latest example comes from Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Shinshu University, respectively. Moran and Kanemoto’s work traces local events, like the die-off of a species or an ecosystem, back through the global economic trade network to find its cause. Understanding a single such event is complex; understanding how thousands of them exist in a network sounds impossible.

Yet that’s what the duo are working toward with their latest visualization, published in Nature this week. The purple-and-green dappled maps represent how American consumers impact the rest of the natural world. It’s a classic heat map, distinguishing between hotspots of threatened marine and terrestrial species. The more intense the hue, the larger the number of threats that link back to American consumers.

Some of the relationships are clear: American consumers are driving overfishing, which drives the threat to marine species in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, for instance. But U.S. consumers also drive threats in surprising places, like Spain–with their taste for olive oil, as Kanemoto explains. “For example, [the] Iberian lynx in Spain is critically endangered due to habitat loss, and one cause of this is hydro dam projects, and one purpose of these dams is irrigation control for various agriculture, including olive oil, which is significantly exported to the U.S.,” he tells Co.Design over email. Or take the stub-footed toad, threatened in Venezuela. The way U.S. consumers drive logging in the region, presumably for paper goods, directly contributes to at least 2% of the toad’s threat level.

The stub-footed toad’s habitat

Bleak though the picture is, it could have a very tangible impact on these threatened species. Moran and Kanemoto write that 90% of the money the U.S. pours into conservation comes from rich countries and–crucially–is also spent in rich countries. But as their map shows, ecologies in poorer developing countries are often most impacted by global trade routes. Their visualization shows where that conservation should be going, not just where donors can “see” it.

So what about the consumer standing in the grocery store coffee aisle, helpless to understand the real impact of his or her choice? Moran points out that certification services, like the Forest Stewardship Council (for wood), the Marine Stewardship Council (for seafood), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (which ends up in hundreds of consumer products) are all helpful to consumers, but that there need to be more organizations helping us make our footprints lighter. “At this point, it’s still very hard to make informed choices as a consumer,” he writes.

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Visualizing this immense network is just half of the problem–communicating it to the public will be its own design challenge.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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