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One of the road signs that inevitably grabs my attention is: “Drive like your kids live here.” Recently, this sign pulled me out of my distracted mental meanderings about how pandemic easing may lead to pent-up excess consumption. I slowed down, paid attention to my surroundings, and then it hit me: “Consume like your kids live here.” It seems we’re consuming faster than 100 km/h when the safe speed is 30 to 50 km/h.
J.B. MacKinnon, with reference to his book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, noted overconsumption surpassed overpopulation as the greatest driver of our eco-crises in about 2000. Even if population peaks and declines to seven billion by 2100, a decrease of one billion from today, overconsumption is racing to trump any ecological gains from slower rates of population increase.
MacKinnon calculated an average person in a rich country now consumes 13 times as much as an average person in a poor country. To bring it home, he asserts that if everyone lived like an average Canadian, we’d need four Earths’ worth of resources to sustain the global population. Are we so addicted to the human construct of economic growth that we will literally consume ourselves out of house and home?
Energy use continues to multiply. Per-capita energy consumption has climbed by a factor of eight since the Industrial Revolution. Green technology and clean energy will reduce fossil fuel use and improve efficiencies, but efficiency is not enough, and every technology carries some ecological cost. Total demand must decrease.
Years ago, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute emphasized the most effective way to reduce energy use is to consume less. Like former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, he recommended putting on a sweater and turning down the thermostat.
Overconsumption of food is an ongoing habit. In 1965, when the global population was 3.3 billion, the average consumption of food energy across the world was 2358 kcal/person/day. By 2017, consumption of food energy had increased 123 per cent to 2908 kcal/person/day, even though the number of people eating it had increased 227 per cent to 7.5 billion. I acknowledge the striking trend in this data set does not tease out shortages in some parts of an inequitable world, and that food energy does not account for vitamin, mineral and other requirements of a healthy diet.
And then there is the amount of food that is wasted. If we applied the best current methods (excluding further inventions) to reduce wasted food across the world, one billion extra people could be fed. In Canada, the value of wasted food per year is $49.5 billion (with associated costs, it is 2.5 times higher) and the total of avoidable and unavoidable waste is tallied at 58 per cent of all food.
Today, as our changing climate creates wonky weather and global species numbers plummet, humans have a responsibility to assess our excess consumption in the context of our ecological impact. How much available food does each person really need? Are our energy-consuming and greenhouse gas-emitting flights necessary? How many square feet of living space does each person need? How might fashion preferences be subdued in order to buy less? A car salesman once advised me, “Buy more car for your buck,”’ and I wondered how much vehicle heft is required when so many trips are in bicycle range. How often does our lithium-laden electronic gadgetry need to be updated?
Billionaires blowing bundles to boost space tourism are among the richest 400 Americans, owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. The wealth imbalance is now more extreme than it has been in over a century. Ecological systems do not have a sense of humour about catapulting consumption. Taut social systems are prone to violence as our planet’s poorest people scramble for food, water and relief from extreme weather.
It seems we’re consuming faster than 100 km/h when the safe speed is 30 to 50 km/h, writes @ralphmartinOAC for @NatObserver. #consumption #overconsumption #inequality #ClimateChange
Gray Merriam, my ecology professor decades ago, writes with clarity in his recent book, Caring for Our Homeplace: “The excessive emphasis on human comfort and profitable economic outcomes at the expense of ecosystem processes and structures is immoral, unworkable and the root of many of our major problems.”
Citizens have a responsibility, proportional to their income and wealth, to consume not only like our kids live here, but like all our all relations will live here for millennia. There are real limits. Social systems will only thrive if we apply political pressure to act (not pretend) like we are all in this together. Ecological systems are designed with roles of resilience for all species. Life increasingly depends on reducing total human consumption.
Ralph C. Martin, PhD, professor (retired), University of Guelph. Information on book, Food Security: From Excess to Enough, at www.ralphmartin.ca