Sustainable consumption

I have been asked to write about the progress that has been made on sustainable consumption. This is difficult because, quite frankly, there’s hardly been any. In fact, the large-scale consumption currently practiced around the world is inherently unsustainable. This is by far the most important reason why of the list of major environmental problems confronting us, practically all of them have gotten dramatically worse over the past half-century, as a quick look at the facts makes all too clear.

Unsustainable carbon emissions

At present the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 387 parts per million, a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, and quite possibly the last 20 million. The rate at which we add to this level has also been increasing, so that each new year sees more carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere than ever before. As a result there is the distinct possibility that this century will see a disastrous increase in global temperatures of 3°C or more.

Unsustainable food consumption

The situation with respect to food is scarcely any better. With the world’s population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, and ever larger numbers of people consuming ever larger quantities of meat, global food supplies are under dangerous pressure. According to the UNFAO, an astonishing 30% of the world’s landmass is already used to produce food, not for people, but for the animals we consume. 2007-2008 saw food riots in over 20 countries as food prices hit record highs and millions of the world’s poorest went hungry. These prices have only been exceeded since.

Can we leave it to market forces?

Sustainable consumption is meant to be the solution to these problems, but if we are going to have anything even resembling it we must have some way of managing how we make use of the planet’s finite, and dwindling, resources. Currently, our way of going about this is to leave resource management almost entirely in the hands of the market. This is a product of the fact that almost all the talk about sustainable consumption is coming from the West, which both represents a very small percentage of the world’s population and consumes a disproportionate share its resources.

Markets can tackle some problems but not others

Markets are extremely effective at doing some things – they have, for instance, helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty over the last hundred years – but they are also extremely bad at doing others, like properly reflecting the true price of the vast majority of the goods and services we consume.

To take just one example of this, markets will never of their own accord factor into the price of timber the cost of the damage done to the environment in order to collect it, or the further damage that is done to the atmosphere if it is burnt. The plain truth is that companies have every incentive not to pay for the damage they do, because doing so would drastically increase their production costs for essentially no benefit to them. In many cases, this behavior is justified with the argument that the company’s savings are passed onto us, their customers.

Timber: markets hide the true costs

How will we end up paying the true costs of timber - money, forestry, climate change etc.?

Of course, the truth is we still pay the full price of the timber we consume – just that we do so in the form of rapidly shrinking forests, polluted air and the desertification of large parts of the Earth – even as the artificially low cash value of timber encourages us to consume far more than we should. And what is true of timber is true of oil, food, fisheries, electricity and practically everything else we consume. The market is even worse at valuing some of our most precious resources, such as clean air and water, because they are largely free. The result is that the average American consumes over three times more water than the average Chinese, and over one hundred times more than the average Angolan.

The market for greener mining?

Worse, rather than attempting to curb the reckless overconsumption they practice, developed nations actively encourage the rest of the world to buy into the delusion that a collection of self-interested businesses acting without oversight will produce a sustainable outcome. That this approach has failed time and time again has not dimmed the religious fervor of its proponents. To pick just a few examples, for decades mining companies in Peru have flooded the country’s ecosystem with massive amounts of toxic mining waste, elevating levels of substances such as cyanide and mercury throughout the Amazon.

Similarly, at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, Australian owned mining company BHP Billiton dumped 80,000,000 tons of toxic waste into the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers ever year for two decades, damaging the environment of the entire region and affecting the livelihood of the 50,000 villagers who lived downstream. In 2002, having extracted billions of dollars worth of ore, the company promptly sold its shares to the Papua New Guinea government and left, paying none of the cleanup costs.

Perhaps most egregious of all is the tobacco industry, which, when left to its own devices, quite literally kills its own consumer base with little regard for the consequences. The WHO puts smoking related deaths at a staggering 100 million in the 20th century and projects that the figure will reach 1 billion by the end of the 21st. Difficult as it is to believe, the tobacco industry continues to this very day to deny the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.

The market for fewer cars?

Yet in spite of the historical evidence, free-market fundamentalists continue to argue that the situation with regards to sectors such as the automobile industry will somehow be different. Again, simply looking at the facts makes it clear that it is not. There are currently a billion cars on the road. More than 60% of oil produced in the world already goes towards transportation. Were China and India to reach Western levels of car ownership, which they are being actively encouraged to do, they would have 1.6 billion cars between them. Just keeping that number of cars on the road would require almost all of OPEC’s oil output, to say nothing of the disastrous effects two and a half billion cars would have on the environment and infrastructure.

The limited scope of market regulation

That markets behave this way is both completely understandable and completely unnecessary. Markets would still be extremely good at producing the goods and services consumers want even if they were properly regulated. Unfortunately, the vast majority of regulation has been either ineffectual or misguided. In many countries, regulation with respect to automobiles places a floor on a vehicle’s fuel efficiency, but no major country places a limit placed on the number of cars allowed on the road. Similarly, the majority of chemical manufacturers follow strict guidelines regarding their production process to ensure the safety of their products, but no nation limits the total amount of harmful chemicals it allows to be produced and dispersed into the environment.

This kind of regulation is rather like missing the forest for the trees. Governments must take an honest look at the sustainability of current levels of production, and place appropriate constraints on society where necessary.

Technology: one part of the solution

A final word on technology, which has become the modern deus ex machina whenever we are confronted with problems that require difficult solutions. Technology will almost certainly be a key part of creating a sustainable future, but it will not be the only part, and it will certainly not produce the results we want if we continue to invest hundreds of times more money into ever more destructive methods of consumption, such as fracking, than we do into sustainable technology such as renewable energy, carbon capture, or energy efficient industry. It is also worth remembering that the technological revolutions of the past have been based on the discovery or exploitation of new resources, such as the revolution in production brought about by the advent of coal-powered industry, or the revolution in agriculture that came from the invention of chemical fertilizers. It remains to be seen what technology will be able to do if our resources run out.

May 2013


30% of the World's landmass and 70% of our freshwater withdrawals are already used for food production. With global population on the increase, UNFAO predicts a 70-100% increase in agriculture requirements over the next 20 years.

About the author

Chandran Nair's picture

Hong Kong

Chandran Nair is the Founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), an independent social venture think tank dedicated to... (Read more)

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