The great challenge of the 21st century is learning to consume less. This is how we can do it

SDG 12 Responsible Consumption UN

© UNDP / Vladimer Valishvili

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jason Hickel, Anthropologist, London School of Economics

Ecological collapse is hard to miss in the headlines. From deforestation to soil depletion, species extinction to climate change, the past few years have brought countless troubling reports. We are living in the age of the Anthropocene, and we’re reminded on a daily basis of our uncertain future on an unstable planet.

Whenever I give public talks, there is always someone who sticks their hand in the air and tells me that really, it all comes down to overpopulation. They are almost always a white man, and their argument generally comes with a helping of racism. People in poor countries just have too many babies, and they need to get it under control. They’re ruining everything for the rest of us.

What astounds me about this position is that it gets it completely backward. We do have a population problem, it’s true. But it has nothing to do with poor countries. The real problem is that there are too many rich people.

Unbalanced consumption

There’s an easy way to show this. In recent years, scientists have published estimates of the world’s total consumption of material stuff, including everything from fish to livestock, minerals to metals, forests to fossil fuels. It comes to more than 80 billion tons of stuff per year. A sustainable level of consumption is about 50 billion tons per year, scientists believe. We are overshooting the mark by 60%.

This means we are eating away at the web of life on which we all depend for our survival. This might sound impossibly abstract, but we can see the consequences around us. Fish stocks are collapsing. Pollinators are dying off. Agricultural topsoils are turning to dust. Huge swathes of coastal ocean have become dead zones.

However, material consumption is not evenly distributed across the human population. People in rich nations consume vastly more than their counterparts in the rest of the world, according to the most recent data. The average resident of the average high-income country burns through 28 tons of stuff every year. By contrast, people in low-income countries use less than two tons every year. Indians consume 3.6 tons. People in upper-middle-income countries such as China and Brazil consume about 12 tons. That’s right on the world average, and less than half the amount consumed by their counterparts in nations such as Britain and the US.

If everybody in the world consumed as much as the average person in the average high-income country, we would need 3.8 Earths to sustain us. By contrast, if everyone consumed as much as the average person in the rest of the world, we would sit right at the level of sustainability, with a little breathing room.

If we want to know who is to blame for our ecological crisis, the data are clear. Since 1990, annual global consumption has increased by a whopping 33 billion tons, pushing us deep into the emergency zone. Growth in the per capita consumption of rich countries accounts for 81% of this. In other words, almost all of our overshoot is driven by the global rich.

Not every human is causing the crisis

This is the problem with the language of the Anthropocene. The word itself leads us to assume that humans, in some abstract, generic form, are destabilizing our planetary biome. If that’s your starting point, then of course you are going to worry about population growth in the Global South. But there are no generic humans in the world. People live in different kinds of societies, with different values, histories and economic systems. It’s not humans per se who are causing our crisis, it’s a particular subset of humans. It’s those who live in societies – mostly in North America and Western Europe – that see material consumption as a paramount virtue, and who insist that their economies deliver more of it each year, on an exponential curve, regardless of the consequences.

If we are going to have a decent shot of surviving the Anthropocene, rich countries will have to scale down their consumption, and fast. This may sound scary. People worry that cutting consumption by 75% – the amount needed for rich countries to operate at the safe boundary – means poverty and misery. But it doesn’t have to be so. We have been told that high levels of consumption are necessary for high levels of human development, but it’s simply not true.

Consider Costa Rica, for example. Costa Rica’s per capita consumption is just over the sustainable level, yet they have some of the highest human development indicators in the world. Costa Ricans can expect to live longer than Americans, and with a level of well-being and life satisfaction that rivals even Scandinavian countries. In this sense, Costa Rica is one of the most efficient economies on Earth: it delivers high levels of human well-being with relatively little ecological pressure. We have been thinking about development all wrong. We have been holding countries such as the US and Sweden up as our goal, when we should have been paying attention to those such as Costa Rica.

How do we get there?

The first step is to introduce caps on resource consumption, ideally by an international treaty, much as we have done for carbon emissions. This would change prices to reflect the true cost of resource use. We could enforce the caps with fines for overconsumption.

The second step would be to introduce new indicators of progress. This would mean switching from GDP to a more balanced measure such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for figures such as pollution and natural asset depletion. Focusing on GPI would help us maximize social goods while minimizing ecological bads.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is going to require a radical paradigm shift. Right now, our primary economic goal is growth, growth, growth. This objective may have made sense in the early 20th century, but it’s no longer fit for purpose, especially for rich countries. It’s time to evolve towards a different kind of economy, focused on achieving well-being for all within the limits of our planet’s ecology. This is the challenge of the 21st century. We are the generation that has to make it happen.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

The EU cuts roaming charges further while the UK weighs Brexit impact

Does Draghi have another ace up his sleeve given his Quantitative Easing failure?

We need a reskilling revolution. Here’s how to make it happen

8 amazing facts to help you understand China today

Is it just visa-free travel that Erdogan demands from the EU to not break the migration deal?

Can a Bavarian Oktoberfest beer indulger bring down the Berlin government?

2018 ‘terrifying’ for Yemenis but ultimately a ‘year for hope’ says UN Special Envoy

Crimea: The last bloodless secession of a Ukraine region?

EU Copyright Directive: Google News threatens to leave Europe while media startups increasingly worry

Lithuania needs to get rid of the victim mentality

A day in the life of a refugee: the wait

The cost of healthcare is rising in ASEAN. How can nations get the most for their money?

Climate change and health – can medical students be the solution?

Terrorist content online should be removed within one hour, says EP

Parliamentary bid to democratize Myanmar constitution a ‘positive development’ says UN rights expert

North Korean families facing deep ‘hunger crisis’ after worst harvest in 10 years, UN food assessment shows

What does reimagining our energy system look like?

OECD Steel Committee concerned about excess capacity in steel sector

UN chief saddened at news of death of former US President George H.W. Bush

COP21 Breaking News_04 December: Building a Sustainable Future – speech by UNEP Deputy Executive Director Ibrahim Thiaw at the LPAA Thematic Event on Buildings

Globalization 4.0 must provide for the poorest, or it risks causing chaos for everyone

We can save the Earth. Here’s how

EU job-search aid worth €9.9m for 1,858 former Air France workers

Three ways the world must tackle mental health

The banks dragged Eurozone down to fiscal abyss

Global Citizen-Volunteer Internships

It’s not kids’ screen time you should worry about – it’s yours

Israeli security forces’ response to Gaza protests ‘a recipe for more bloodshed’, says UN expert

EU budget 2019 approved: focus on the young, innovation and migration

The cost of housing is tearing our society apart

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s speech from World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of New Champions

Japanese law professor elected new judge at the International Court of Justice

At Ministerial session, UN regional office in Beirut to focus on technology for sustainable development

It’s time to stop talking about ethics in AI and start doing it

Eurozone: Inflation plunge to 0.4% in July may trigger cataclysmic developments

Office workers in these economies clock up the most extra hours

When connectivity is not enough: the key to meaningful digital inclusion

Nearly 900 children released by north-east Nigeria armed group

From ‘dead on the inside’ to ‘truly alive’: Survivor of genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda recounts her story as UN marks 25th anniversary

Japanese banks to move their European HQ from London to Frankfurt after Brexit

Europe bows to Turkey’s rulers, sends Syrian refugees back to chaos

The Schengen area is at a crossroads

AI has huge potential – but it won’t solve all our problems

Climate change and health: an everyday solution

China-EU Relations: Broader, Higher and Stronger

Consumer product quality: Parliament takes aim at dual standards

EU-US Trade: European Commission endorses rebalancing duties on US products

Erdogan vies to become Middle East Sultan over Khashoggi’s killing

A Sting Exclusive: EU Commission’s Vice President Šefčovič accentuates the importance of innovation to EU’s Energy Union

Commission takes further action to ensure professionals can fully benefit from the Single Market

CHINA: five letters that could mean…

Who really cares for the environment?

Is a deal over EU budget possible today?

Trump asked Merkel to pay NATO arrears and cut down exports ignoring the EU

Here’s how to build energy infrastructures fit for the future

EU-China relations under investigation?

UN rights office calls for action to end ‘repression and retaliation’ in crisis-torn Nicaragua

How can we build a workforce for our digital future?

Let’s Learn

Why growth is now a one way road for Eurozone

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s