The way of life we take for granted in rich countries like Australia involves the consumption of large quantities of resources and energy, and the dumping of large volumes of waste into the environment. The main cause of global problems is over-consumption. Following is a brief indication of some of the ways in which people in affluent consumer society consume far more resources than all people in the world could ever use.
In consumer society most people earn high incomes and spend them on purchasing large volumes of goods and services. We do not live simply or make many things for ourselves. The typical suburb could hardly be better designed to maximise consumption. All goods and services must be brought in, access is mostly by car, which is a very resource-expensive way of travelling, most people must travel out to work and for leisure, and all wastes must be transported out. People consume a lot of goods produced overseas.
Each Australian is using 35 tonnes of materials every year, throwing away about .7 tonnes of garbage. Large quantities of earth have to be processed to rovide some of the things we use; for instance if you are wearing a gold ring about 3.5 tonnes of materials had to be handled to make it.!
Resource depetion is occurring because far too much producing and consuming is going on…yet only one-fifth of the world’s people life affluently. How big will this problem be when 9 billion live affluently?
Third World poverty and under-development are primarily due to the way the unjust global economy allows the rich countries to take most of the resources and forces the Third World to devote much of its productive capacity to stocking rich world supermarkets. The one fifth of the world’s people who live in rich countries are getting and using up about 4/5 of all the resources produced in the world. They are consuming resources at a per capita rate that is 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world's people.
Environmental destruction is mainly due to the fact that we are taking too much from nature and dumping too many wastes back into nature. Again what will the problem be like if/when 9 billion people live as Americans or Australians want to.
Armed conflicts are mostly due to struggles to get control of resources and markets. If everyone remains determined to become more and more affluent without limit increasing conflict is highly likely.
Social cohesion is breaking down and the quality of life is falling, in the richest countries. This is mainly because the top priority is whatever will generate most sales, business turnover, income and monetary wealth, not what will maximise welfare, cohesion or quality of life…and increasing economic wealth is now reducing these values.
SOME EXAMPLES OF OUR HIGH RESOURCE CONSUMPTION.
Throw-away products. We have one use and throw away tissues and nappies, bottles, transistor batteries. We even design buildings now so that they can be pulled down easily.
Packaging. We do not take our containers to the shop to be filled.
Magazines. These are luxurious throw away forms of trivial entertainment. A glossy magazine can take the energy equivalent of 1/4 litre of oil to produce.
Soft drink. More than 65 litres per person in Australia p. a. involving 1.5 billion bottles and cans. In the world more than 100 million Cokes are drunk every day, taking more energy than the country of Malawi uses for all purposes.
Imported food. Australia imports much food, including oranges from Brazil. We can produce all the food we need here.
Cards. In one year the Japanese send each other 2 billion New Year cards; 25,000 tonnes of paper and involving a freight task of more than 750,000 tonne- kilometres of transport.
Tourism. This is a very expensive luxury that very few of the world's people can ever afford, probably less than 5%. It is one of the biggest industries in the world, and growing fast. A jumbo jet flying to London from Sydney burns 250 tonnes of fuel, while 1.5 billion people in the world have to use contaminated and dangerous water because they cannot afford sufficient fuel to boil their water.
The "beauty" industry. There is huge expenditure on cosmetics,hair dressing, fashion, jewellery, models, marketing, etc. Australia consumes 250 tonnes of nail polish every year.
Ironing and dry cleaning. What proportion of these is necessary?
Lawns. In America more fuel, irrigation, pesticides and fertilizer go into growing lawns than into growing any agricultural crop, including corn, wheat or potatoes.
Meat. This is a very resource-expensive form of food. For each kg of meat we eat the animal has eaten 5 to 10 kg of food. Worst of all is feedlot production of meat where all the food the animals eat has to be transported in. More than 70% of the food produced in Europe and America is used to produce food for animals that will be eaten by humans. Home gardeners and Third World peasants are more than 100 times as energy efficient in producing food as modern "agribusiness" farmers are.
Advertising. This is one of the most unnecessary and wasteful of all industries. Globally more than $500 billion is spent every year in an effort to get people to buy more than they otherwise would. In a sane society information on what is available could easily be accessible without much expense.
Leisure pursuits in consumer society are often resource and environmentally expensive, such as water skiing, horse racing and car racing. There is a world Anti-Golfing League, opposing the spread of golf courses, especially in Asia. Thailand has more than 160 courses, used only by richer people. Golf courses take much of the scarce land, water, energy and fertilizer and cause pollution problems through their runoff.
Things that are not made to last or to be replaced cost us a great deal in money and resources. These days most products are flimsy and have obviously not been designed to last or to be repaired.
Houses. Most people want a house that is far bigger and more elaborate than is necessary. In fact most people pay 20 times too much for their house! (See Box below.) If we were content with what is sufficient, many of us could have a small and cheap but perfectly adequate house made from earth, for less than $15,000. (See TSW; Housing.) The average Australian house is twice the size of the average house a generation ago, and now around the biggest in the world.
Jewellery; Precious metals and stones. Large amounts of energy, labour and skill go into producing gold and diamonds, although these are totally useless and make no contribution to meeting important human needs. Ornaments could be made from resource-cheap materials.
The fitness industry. Large numbers of people go to elaborate gyms and fitness classes to be told to lift their leg and put it down again, when we should have a more labour-intensive way of life in which we would get more exercise from things like gardening, cutting wood and cycling to work.
Clenliness. We clean, polish, vacuum and paint much more than is necessary for tidiness or hygiene.
Fashion and style. Large volumes of clothes, cars, housing, handbags etc are bought (and scrapped), simply because they are in or out of fashion.
Most people want goods and services that are of much "higher" quality, i.e., much more expensive, than is necessary. Look at the people on the train in the morning going to work; they are dressed as if they were going to be in a fashion parade. None wear old or patched clothes. In consumer society people identify their success, self-respect and status with the possessions they can display. Luxury is very attractive. The lives of the super-rich are idolised. Few people see any moral problem in high consumption lifestyles. However what we should focus on is the question, "What would be sufficient?" What clothes would be neat, warm and durable enough? What sort of car or house would be functional but as cheap as possible?
Unfortunately affluence has also contaminated our aesthetic senses. What is a "nice" house? What most people regard as a "nice" house will turn out to be an expensive house.
At the public level we should stop assuming that bigger and more elaborate is better, that megabuck developments are good, that our public buildings must be huge, palatial and opulent. Public buildings often assert great self-importance and wealth. How about trying to be a little more modest and humble, saying to the world, "This building does the job quite well enough, and it has not used up more resources than is necessary."
Even our concept of "progress" is bound up with the notion of for ever-increasing wealth or capacity to consume more. The same is true for the concept of "development". The statement “Small is beautiful” sums up the right outlook. We should value and prefer things that are as small, frugal and resource cheap as possible, such as cosy and cute little mud brick houses.
There are two main reasons.
1. Because a huge effort is made to persuade us to consume. More than $500 billion is spent globally every year on marketing. In addition the symbols and examples of success held out to us are mostly to do with being wealthy and able to consume more. And we also have an economy in which there must be more and more consuming all the time. If we all lived simply this economy would collapse.
2. Because there is not much else to do! Many sources of life satisfaction that we could enjoy in a sensible society do not exist in consumer society, such as enjoyment of our work, enjoyment of the experience of community and of contributing to community, a relaxed pace with more time to think and chat and learn and play, opportunities to develop many skills especially in arts and crafts, living in an ecologically rich and beautiful landscape, living in a leisure-rich neighbourhood, participating in the government of our own communities, and in the development of a productive household.
When one understands a little about the global situation the enormous moral problem set by rich world affluence becomes glaringly obvious. Only a few live as we do. Billions of people are very poor. About 850 million people do not get enough to eat. They are deprived of resources while we in rich countries can only have affluent living standards because we consume far more than our fair share. It is very difficult to disagree with Gandhi's statement, "Tye rich mus livemoresimly, so tghat the poor may simply live."
When you understand the basic pattern of global resource consumption you realise that expensive toys such as sports cars are very disturbing objects. You cannot have one without depriving many people of resources they desperately need.
As well as greatly reducing resource consumption The Simpler Way would in fact raise the quality of life most of us experience now. In conventional economic terms we would be much poorer, because our dollar incomes would be much lower and we would have much cheaper clothes, houses etc. But there would be many more non-material sources of satisfaction and "wealth". (See The benefits of The Simpler Way.)
The Buddhists say we should seek to be "POOR IN MEANS, BUT RICH IN ENDS"
It is widely understood that beyond a low level becoming more materially wealthy will not increase one's quality of life or satisfaction. Indeed affluence easily damages many important things, including empathy and generosity, community (affluence encourages individualism), and especially sensitivity and appreciation. It is important to be able to appreciate simple things, and to derive satisfaction from everyday experiences. The wealthier one is the more likely one is to need big prizes and thrills in order to be satisfied.
The discussion above has only been about our personal consumption; the things we buy as individuals but do not really need. Much more important causes of our society's high per capita resource consumption is the fact that many of our society's systems are far too expensive. For example: