One of the road signs that inevitably grabs my attention is “Drive like your kids live here.” Last week, 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/hr when the safe speed is 30 to 50 km/hr.
J.B. MacKinnon, with reference to his book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, noted that overconsumption surpassed overpopulation as the greatest driver of our eco-crises in about 2000. Even if population peaks and declines to 7 billion by 2100, a decrease of 1 billion from today, overconsumption is racing to trump any ecological gains from slower rates of population increase.
MacKinnon calculated that an average person in a rich country now consumes thirteen 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 that the most effective way to reduce energy use is to consume less. Like President 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% to 2908 kcal/person/day, even though the number of consuming people had increased 227% to 7.5 billion. I acknowledge that 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.
Although chowing down is unusually high today, it is still not keeping up with how much food is wasted. If we applied the best current methods (excluding further inventions) to reduce wasted food across the world, 1 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 wasted food is tallied at 58% of all food.
Today as our changing climate descends into wonky weather and global species numbers plummet, humans have the 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 per person 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’s 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.
Dr. 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.