One of the most challenging aspects of change we must face is our approach to the world’s natural resources. They will run out unless we change our consumption patterns. We have consumed more of the earth’s resources in the last 60 years than in all our previous known history.
The International Energy Agency recently released its World Energy outlook in a presentation to the press in London on 9 November 2011. Some of the more worrying trends are that economic concerns of individual countries have diverted attention from sustainable energy policies. They are seen by some as expensive and unpopular ignoring the long term scenario which is that unbridled exploitation of the earths resources will eventually mean they run out! Why is it that a species that considers itself the most intelligent on the planet can behave in ways that are clearly not in its own long term self interest? To realize we are threatening our own survival yet continue with the very activities that cause the problem is nothing short of insanity.
Even at the figure of 7 billion people, we make up less than 1% of the worlds biomass of animals. Such a small fragment should not be a threat to the whole biosphere but we are. Man made CO2 emissions have rebounded to a record high and spending on oil imports is also near record highs.
How did we arrive at this point? The Industrial revolution with its innovations from simple tools to complex machinery along with developments in the chemical industry changed our way of life in the mid 1800’s onwards from labour intensive agricultural based societies to large scale manufacturing and information societies. This has brought us many benefits but also created a culture that relies on continual consumption of finite world resources to keep its momentum going. Equating our own worth with consumption of material goods has been consciously fuelled by advertising and business and is still considered an indicator of social status…the latest cars…the latest fashion etc.
The consume and disposal cycle of modern life relies heavily on promoting new products and making others obsolete. Billions are spent annually in subtle and not so subtle ways telling us that our self worth equals our ownership of the latest stuff. In wealthier countries people consume not only what they need but all and more than they can use. In poorer and developing countries people aspire to live in the unsustainable way they see the wealthier countries doing. The affluent (about 20% of the global population) use close to 80% of the world’s raw energy resources and contribute the lions share to the world’s waste and pollution.
Half the world’s forests have disappeared. 25% of the coral reefs are now gone. Species extinction particularly of our world fish stock increases at staggering rates accelerated by non sustainable levels of fishing, habitat destruction (dead zones) and climate change.
The consumption curve in China, the next major developing country, is on the rise. If Chinese people were to consume the same amount of meat per person as Americans do, they would require two thirds of the worlds current annual grain production to feed their herds. If they were to burn coal at the present US level per person, they would use more coal in a single year than the world’s entire annual coal production. And if they were to use oil at the same rate, they would use more oil per annum than the world currently produces.
Both India and coming up behind it, Africa look to follow in China’s footsteps emulating the western lifestyle and dietary habits. The problem with this is that the world’s resources are running out. Those that are still there are far less accessible and the risk of ecological disaster in the extraction process (think deep sea drilling) are far higher. There is now an unsustainable relationship between the human species and Mother Nature. Our current lifestyle has impaired the ecological balance.
Chemically bolstered mechanised agriculture increases the yield per acre but also increases the growth of algae that chokes lakes and waterways. Chemicals used as effective pesticides poison entire bird and insect populations. We inject more than 100,000 chemical compounds into the air,land, rivers and seas; dump millions of tonnes of sludge and solid waste into the oceans then wonder why our fertility rates have dropped and our children suffer all kinds of allergies and chemical sensitivities. All that gunk has to go somewhere and it is back into the food chain and into our own bodies.
There is no point in affluent countries thinking this problem should be dealt with evenly by both themselves and the developing impoverished nations whose prime concern is still feeding themselves. More money is spent in the west on diet products alone than the entire UN world famine budget.
In the face of some of these stark realities, more and more people around the world now are becoming aware of the unsustainablity of their current lifestyles and are rethinking their individual choices, values and behaviours. It is still a minority of people but one that is growing all the time. In last weeks election here in New Zealand the Green party became the first environmental party around the world to garner more than 10% of its country’s electorate vote which, under a mixed member proportional system gives them some leverage with the new coalition government formed from a mixture of both right and left political parties under a prime minister willing to be inclusive.
A shift is starting to happen in peoples minds from consumption based on quantity to consumption based on quality and necessity. A simpler style of life using natural resources married with modern technology in a new way. A greater investigation into a product’s environmental friendliness before purchase, and the ethics of its production and use. A deeper commitment to buy local fresh organic produce where possible and where affordable. This is where our focus now needs to be at the grass roots level of our own lives to create and encourage change at the global level.
The real driver of our consumer driven economy is us and the consumer decisions we make. There is no point pointing the finger anywhere else. At the end of the day if we each individually encourage (through our spending habits), green companies, renewable energy technology, protection of our water, air and soil, and a commitment to buying only recyclable goods, the pressure on the worlds delicate ecosystem and resources will ease and the law of supply and demand will kill businesses and practices which still operate in ecologically unacceptable ways.