Are You Better for the Environment if You’re Tall or Short?

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is increasing the space between rows of seats on its planes. I’m not surprised — the Dutch are the tallest people on earth these days, as I discovered when I had to crane my neck around the Brobdingnagians in front of me in an Amsterdam movie theater.

Like many Europeans, the Dutch are also very concerned about the environment. As the KLM example illustrates, though, the good nutrition that makes them (and other Northern Europeans) so tall imposes negative externalities on the environment: Fewer Dutchmen per plane flight means more fuel consumed per passenger, and more pollution. The higher weight that goes with extra height requires more calories to maintain, generating more pollution to produce the tall person’s food.

So maybe we Americans are doing our part for the environment by being relatively short. Now if we could also reduce our weight, so that we consume fewer calories (the average American adult is officially classified as overweight, and 30 percent of Americans are classified as obese), we could actually contribute to environmental protection in a way that the tall Europeans cannot!

lax focus

I am 5'10", the average height for men in America and not so long ago I realized that I should become pro-immigration, esp. for Mexicans and Asians because perhaps before long I'll be "above average" in height. But as far as the tall Europeans, esp. the Dutch, I think we be ever diligent against their becoming citizens. :)


To suggest that removing seats means each individual passenger is polluting more is ludicrous. It's not as if they're taking x number of seats away from so many flights to the same destination then adding an addition flight to accommodate the bumped passengers. It's still the same plane with the same amount of pollution regardless of how many people are on it. A passenger is not any more culpable because other people decide not to get on a plane that's going somewhere regardless of whether or not they're on it.


Or we could simply internalize the externality of weight causing higher fuel costs, by charging passengers by the pound. A rational consumer will therefore find the optimum weight, balancing between utility from consuming delicious food and the extra cost that imposes on flying.


As perhaps Keynes would say today, "In the environmental run, we should all be dead."


I found this view on the subject to be very interesting. Though it may seem crazy and irreleveant, there could be some truth to it. If there is a local Dutch airline, it is true that less people would fit on each plane, and if there were enough demand, more than one flight would have to be scheduled. Also true about the Americans. There are several ways they could reduce their weight: exercise, such as walking which would reduce care use; eating healthier food meaning less factories would be producing all the junk that is eaten today.

@3 Though that could be an interesting approach, there are some people who are not overweight by choice, but because their body is built that way. This idea would prove to be unfair to them.


I'm confused by this statement:

"we Americans...being relatively short."

Unless you mean those of indigenous ethnicity, which I think you do not, there is no such thing as a person of American ethnic background.

While I'm certain you don't need a primer in the history of immigration in this country, recall that many of the early settlers here were from Europe.

The US is becoming more diverse and that may have an impact on our average height (although I'm not sure you're actually citing data rather than just your observations). As of the 2000 Census, European Americans made up 60.7% of the US population.

So...I'm still trying to figure out which "Americans" you're referring to.


Perhaps they're mitigating through greater use of bicycles? Or maybe that's another reason they're so tall?

On a side note, I seem to remember some work on national heights that suggested in WWII Americans were relatively tall compared to the other combatants (Germans, French, et al), but since then everyone else has gotten taller.

Any chance of an average height v. GNP discussion?


Dutch people are awesome!!


In one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels he portrays future Chinamen as nearly microscopic, having genetically bred themselves smaller and smaller so that they demanded less and less of the world they live in. How progressive!

Marcel (Dutch)

The reason given by KLM is providing more leg space, but can it be that they are just getting less customers at the moment. By reducing the weight of the plane, it will actually reduce fuel consumption as well. So good for environment and my long legs. Win-win...


If tall people have such negative externalities on the world, then the best solution to such problem is to charge an externality tax on the tall people, but it will be unethical to do so. Yes it may help the environment, but being tall is sometimes something you cannot control; what if a certain person's parents were tall, then he has a higher chance of becoming a tall person. I don't think there is a direct solution for the problem concerning tall people and the environment.

Jar Jar Binks

All else equal, doesn't a taller person have a shorter life expectancy?

A shorter life implies less environmental impact.

denis bider

Minor nit: genes determine height more so than nutrition. Genes that favor height are dominant on balance, so people get taller in places where the gene pool gets well mixed (e.g. cities) as opposed to places where it does not.


Not only will reducing their weight will help with the environmental protection, but also they would be helping themselves. A win win, since food costs money, and with the current economic situation, spending less money on food will help people with their expenses. Also then they would be healthier, and won't have to spend on doctors, which are also a great expense. Since this is a "variable", whether being fat or not, this is something Americans can decide. Being short or not, that's sort of already fixed, not much we can do. So help in the only way you can!


@6 Americans may not be an ethnic group, but they are a cultural group. Nutrition being a cultural value (and the one contributing to the increased height of the Dutch), it makes sense to talk about the average American.

L Nettles

Then there is this from Canada

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Obese people have the right to two seats for the price of one on flights within Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Thursday.

The high court declined to hear an appeal by Canadian airlines of a decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency that people who are "functionally disabled by obesity" deserve to have two seats for one fare.

The airlines had lost an appeal at the Federal Court of Appeal in May and had sought to launch a fresh appeal at the Supreme Court. The court's decision not to hear a new appeal means the one-person-one-fare policy stands.

The appeal had been launched by Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet.


Just one more reason why we should all trade ivory. Those darn elephants are destroying the Earth!


Wow. Thanks for this incredibly facile argument. Good to know that planes, tall people and eating are the main sources of pollution. And yet a significant portion of China is covered in smog despite the fact that the average Chinese male is many inches smaller (and presumably lighter) than the average Dutch male.

Also, it may surprise you to know that the Netherlands is one of the slimmest and bike using countries in Europe.

Victor CMS

This is an interesting observation considering that tall people do require more food to mantain themselves. Americans are indeed overweight and this perhaps has negative impacts on the enviroment because of the amount of food they eat on average. However, charging externalities on people because being overweight requires more food (heance more pollution) to mantain their overweight status is a paradox itself. Athletes are quite healthy, thin people (most of the time), yet they require thousands of calories worth of food in order to mantain themselves. Charging externalities on athletes would be absurd as well. "You have to pay for being a healthy human being."
There is really not much that can be done about the size of someone and the enviroment without comprimising someone's health.


Comment number two, you're being very very concrete bound about this. Of course it makes a difference.

Those people are going to find alternative routes, and the economy is going to account for this demand and create those routes. When something becomes less efficient to do, all the people doing it on top of how many could at the old rate don't just stay home.