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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Consumption Bomb

The Consumption Bomb

ecological footprint

Most of us have heard about the Population Bomb – the thesis that a growing human population will wreak environmental havoc, such as mass starvation. But many think that the real ticking time bomb in our future is not so much a Population Bomb but instead what may be called the Consumption Bomb. The Consumption Bomb is sometimes defined as the threat to our planetary health caused by ever larger numbers of people adopting Western patterns of consumption, causing catastrophic levels of pollution, global warming, and resource depletion.

The following graph compares growth in population and growth in consumption during the period from 1995 to 2005. The blue bars represent increases in population. The orange bars represent growth in consumption.

consumption growth

This graph makes clear: growth in consumption is increasing much more dramatically than growth in population.

Our main environmental problem is not necessarily that the world's population is too high. Our main environmental problem is that the world is consuming too much. Overconsumption is causing the world's carbon dioxide levels to rise to dangerous levels. To support our extravagant consumption levels, we are depleting our limited supplies of fossil fuels, reducing the fertility of our soil, raising the acidity of the oceans, overusing our limited aquifers of water, and engaging in deforestation that reduces the trees we need to soak up the ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide caused by our wasteful lifestyles.

Now some will look at the above graph and think: so it's all the fault of those Chinese and Indians that have done things such as ditching their bicycles for cars. But it's not just growth in consumption we should consider, but also which countries are consuming the most now.

Below is a graph showing carbon dioxide usage in tons per capita per year. This is more or less equivalent to a graph showing consumption levels per country. 

consumption by nation

From this graph we can see that the lion's share of consumption is being done by people in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. Even though consumption has been rising in China and India, the per capita consumption in those countries is still less than a third of what it is in the United States.

So we should therefore discard the previous definition of the Consumption Bomb, which was phrased to put the focus on recent adopters of the Western lifestyle. We should instead define the Consumption Bomb simply as the threat to our planetary health caused by high-consumption lifestyles, wherever they may be followed. With this definition we realize that it is not some nouveau riche Chinese who are the main drivers of the Consumption Bomb – it is mainly the citizens of the United States, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia (along with, to a lesser extent, the citizens of ten or fifteen smaller nations).

One of the main catalysts of overconsumption is consumerism. Consumerism is almost a kind of secular religion that is preached to us from birth in a thousand ways, by evangelists such as the pitchmen of Madison Avenue. We are conditioned by television to judge the worthiness of a man by the size or the shininess of his car, or the number of square meters in his house, or how far he traveled for his vacation, rather than what is in the man's heart or mind. Consumerism compels us, in the words of one writer, to borrow money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, to impress people we don't like.

How can you help reduce the devastating ecological blast effects of the Consumption Bomb? Simply consume less. Here are a few things you can do:
  1. Eat less meat. According to one study, if a family of four gave up eating steak for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking their car off the road for three months.
  2. Drive less, and take public transportation. Stop driving to some place you don't need to go to just to get some photo for a Facebook status update.
  3. Stop using Facebook to celebrate frivolous overconsumption. Don't buy some thing you don't need because it would make a nice picture for you to post on Facebook, and don't go to some fancy hotel so you can post a Facebook update to impress your friends. And stop pressing the Like button when you see other people posting photos that document their own frivolous overconsumption. You are only encouraging such people to engage in excessive consumption.
  4. Live in the smallest apartment or house you can comfortably live in. When the housing bubble burst, many a family was ruined because it didn't follow this rule.
  5. Drop the slogan Bigger is Better, and adopt the slogan Small is Beautiful. Small cars and small homes are beautiful, as are bicycles. Big cars and big homes are (with some exceptions) relics of the past that we should not be building any more.