We live in a time of multiple environmental crises: global warming, natural resource depletion, pollution and biodiversity loss. Far from being unrelated, these environmental disasters share the same root cause. Overconsumption has surpassed population growth on our planet as the driver of environmental degradation.
Put simply, overconsumption refers to taking more than what we need from the planet, and doing so at a rate faster than the planet’s ability to regenerate. In 2019, the United Nations Environment Program reported that our natural resource consumption has increased more than three times between 1970 and 2010. Rich countries like Canada consume on average 10 times as much as the poorest countries. If everyone in the world consumed as the average Canadian does, we will need five planets to feed our ravenous consumer appetites.
Canadians have not always consumed as we do now. In the 1950s, our lifestyles were consistent with one-planet living. But since the turn of the millenium, our consumption rates of everything from materials goods, to fossil fuels, to the use of rare earth metals have soared. All this consumption has not increased our well-being. If anything, quite the opposite. The pressure to consume has increased levels of anxiety and depression and decreased life satisfaction and levels of happiness.
Inequality is one of the great drivers of consumption. There is immense social pressure for conspicuous consumption in our society, as we use the display of our possessions and wealth to maintain position in society and assert social status. This pursuit of materialistic goals means we spend so much of our time earning and spending money that we have less time for things like close relationships and time spent in nature that increase our well-being.
Climate change is the most pressing health emergency of our time and overconsumption is driving climate change by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at alarming rates. If we are to keep global warming to 1.50C, and maintain a habitable planet, we will have to limit our consumption.
Impactful actions we can take as individuals is to limit airline flights, and travel by car, train or bus instead. During holidays, we can opt to explore an interesting area close to home or take one longer vacation instead of several shorter ones that require distant travel.
We can also buy less things, especially avoiding big-ticket items like personal vehicles and holiday homes (the latter also contribute to the current housing crisis). When deciding to buy something, we can consider if it is really needed and if so, we can buy used items; well-made, longer-lasting items; or rent, borrow or share things used only occasionally.
Greener options are preferable for an item that is needed, or to replace one that is near the end of its lifecycle, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that simply purchasing green technology is good for the environment. Our total consumption determines how much damage we cause the environment and it is only through reducing consumption across all products, green or otherwise, that we can have a smaller footprint.
Solving our converging environmental crises is going to take more than lifestyle changes, it will require system change. We have to let our politicians know that we want to see policies to reduce overconsumption. We need federal, provincial and municipal governments to set policy on supporting investment in high-quality, long-lasting, net-zero infrastructure whether they be homes, office buildings or public facilities.
Asking our governments to address inequality will ensure that people do not have to consume conspicuously to maintain their status in society. A decrease in consumption will inevitably cause an economic slowdown and job loss unless countered by a rethinking of our current economic model. Fair taxation for wealth redistribution, four-day work weeks and universal basic incomes are components of an economic system that will see prosperity for all in a setting of lower consumption.
The private sector has an important role in addressing overconsumption, too. Companies should once again take pride in manufacturing high-quality, long-lasting products. They can make their products repairable and grow their operations to include departments to repair, refurbish and recycle their products.
Where there is a lack of voluntary initiative in the business sector, governments need to step in with right to repair policies, regulations prohibiting planned obsolescence of products, and mandatory recycling of components. Governments also need to regulate advertising to ensure that people are not coerced to spend frivolously on items that will cost them their health and that of the planet.
None of us wants to hear that we cannot take as many vacations to exotic places as we want or buy all the things we can afford (or at least get on credit). But we have to admit that our current five-planet living amounts to stealing resources from future generations to enrich ourselves. Overconsumption is not something that politicians, corporations or individuals want to talk about. However, if we want to maintain a planet habitable by humans, the time to curb overconsumption is now.
Vamini Selvanandan is a rural family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.
© 2024. This work is openly licensed via CC BY 4.0.