(Shoppers storming the doors at Boxing-Day sales, Selfridges, London)

Context and Clarifications

Section
2. Reduce Consumption
Page
2.1

“I consume, therefore I am”

 

Poor Reneé Descartes couldn’t have known how wrong he was in 1637 when he penned “I think, therefore I am”. I am not being facetious at all when I write the above; I really think that the majority of the world now – regardless of wealth, race, nationality or group – believes implicitly this extraordinary state of affairs.

(Shoppers storming the doors at Boxing-Day sales, Selfridges, London)

 

The image above of shoppers barn-storming through the doors of department stores and the like the day after Christmas can be replicated in many places on earth, the ‘poor’ shoppers in a frenzy to consume more and more and to make up for the deprivation of a day off shopping on Christmas Day, even though that day itself is now almost entirely devoted to gross consumption! How and why we have so willingly adopted this blindingly stultifying, limiting and damaging concept of self is the subject of other sections (e.g. see Section 3), but the consequences for humans and Nature are profound.

There is a famous equation of environmental damage developed by Ehrlich and Holdren in 1971:

I = PAT

I is Impact, P is Population, A is Affluence and T is Technology.

It is nicely fleshed out in ‘Limits to Growth –The 30-Year Update’2: “The impact (I) of any population or nation upon the planet’s sources and sinks is related to the product of its population (P) times its level of affluence (A) times the damage done by the particular technologies (T) chosen to support that affluence”. In order to reduce the ecological footprint of humanity, it would seem reasonable that every society should make improvements where it has the most opportunity to do so. The South has the most room for improvement in P, the West has the most room for improvement in A, while Eastern Europe has the most room for improvement in T.

As P and T will be dealt with elsewhere (e.g. see Section 5, ‘Population’), that leaves A, ‘Affluence’ to be examined here, and this is really a measure of consumption.

 

Who are the big consumers?

This was generally stated in ‘Limits’ above2, but a world map clarifies the situation3:

The darker the colour, the greater the consumption per capita, and there are few surprises in the predominance of First World (or ‘Northern’, or ‘West’, or ‘Developed’) countries.
How much are we consuming?

Is this consumption beyond the earth’s capacity to provide?

These figures are startling, but perhaps there was, and is, spare capacity on the earth, or this growth was achieved ‘sustainably’ and thus there is nothing to be negative about. Of course, this is not so, and ecological footprint calculations sum our consumptive impacts and compare them to the bio-capacity of the earth, thus giving us vital context (ecological-footprint work is examined in detail in webpages 2.3 & 2.4, this section). Such calculations reveal that we exceeded capacity in about 1970 and have continued on ever since so that we now consume the equivalent of 1.7 earths, or more, each year3.

What are the key components of our consumption?

If consumption is a key component of environmental impact, and that impact is increasing rapidly and is beyond the capacity of the earth to meet, and is primarily caused by consumption in the First World, then what comprises our overconsumption? ‘The Living Planet Report 2020’(ibid) breaks it down into two classificatory systems: by land type and by activity:

 

Both categorisations are useful, but I believe that the ‘activity’ breakdown is most easily applicable and will concentrate on that from hereon.

Examination of the activity ‘doughnut’ chart reveals that global consumptive impact comes from, in descending order:

  • Food (29%)
  • Housing (25%)
  • Services (17%)
  • Personal Transportation (15%)
  • Goods (14%)

This is a personalised approach in concert with T10’s approach, but additional impacts by governments, corporations, investments, infrastructure, etc. should not be forgotten and will be dealt with elsewhere in T10 (e.g. Section 9, ‘Economy’). ‘Services’ are similarly hard to deal with at the individual level and will be addressed elsewhere, as will the critical drivers of consumption – attitudes and behaviours – for example, see Section 3, ‘Growth’. It should also be noted that the vital energy component of consumption, while addressed here, is more explicitly dealt with in Section 8, ‘Energy’. That leaves the following to focus upon in this section:

  • Food
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Goods

 

1 Ehrlich, P., Holdren, J. 1971. Impact of Population Growth. Science, 171, Washington, USA.

2 Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., Meadows, D. 2004. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River, USA.

3 WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020 – Bending the Curve of Biodiversity Loss. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

4 Statista. 2021. Trends in Global Export Value of Trade in Goods 1950-2020 (in billions of U.S. dollars). Statista Research Dept., Hamburg, Germany.

Explore Other Pages Reduce Consumption

2.1 Context and Clarifications

“I consume, therefore I am”   Poor Reneé Descartes couldn’t have known how wrong he was in 1637 when he penned “I think, therefore I am”. I am not being facetious at all when I write the above; I really think that the majority of the worl...

2.2 Consumption Fever

This is Albert, the Magic Pudding, ‘magic’ because: “A peculiar thing about the Puddin’ was that, though they had all had a great many slices off him, there was no sign of the place whence the slices had been cut. ‘That’s where the Magic comes in,...

2.3 Introducing Ecological Footprint Analysis

Dealing with the natural world is daunting, such is its size and complexity. Getting a fix on humanity and its blizzard of activities and effects, is similarly daunting. It’s no wonder, then, that it is so hard to get any sort of perspective, any ...

2.4 Using Ecological Footprint Analysis

Hopefully, webpage 2.3 has introduced the ‘Footprint’ concept sufficiently well to enable readers to be ready to apply it, both personally, and to cities, regions, countries or sectors, of interest. Footprint’s ‘home base’ is the Global Footpri...

2.5 Food

While webpages 2.1-4 have attempted to provide some overview on consumption, it is time now to focus on specific significant areas. Food, accounting for up to a third of our consumptive impact, well and truly qualifies as ‘significant’. On clos...

2.6 Housing/Shelter

The next, ‘big ticket’ item, is housing, or shelter, which – depending on the measurement system – ranks alongside food as the major personal consumptive impact. Shelter consumes enormous resources in its construction, maintenance and operation, b...

2.7 Transport/Mobility

Global Footprint Analysis tells us that, worldwide, this accounts for 15% of our personal impact1, and this is much higher in First World countries. At its simplest, it comes down to: How far we travel By what means we travel ...

2.8 Goods

Where to start? The Developing World can’t get enough of them and the Developed World is drowning in them. Our Footprint Analysis in 2.1 tells us that they comprise 14% of our personal consumption impact1, ranking just behind transporta...

2.9 Other Scales: Institutional, Governmental, Corporate

It has oft been stated that T10 focusses, or at least starts, at the personal scale, for reasons of understandability, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the importance of consumption – and drivers - at larger scales. Domestic consumption is ...

2.10 Consumption Myths

It seems a strange thing to do to finish the section on consumption with a word of caution about the topic. The last thing I want to do is to undermine this vital area of impact and agency, but it must be said that it is an area of considerable sm...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

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2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

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10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
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