OUR UNSUSTAINABLY AFFLUENT SOCIETY.
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. This document briefly indicates some of the ways in which people in affluent consumer society consume far more resources than all people in the world could ever use. The main cause of global problems is over-consumption.
In consumer society most people earn high incomes and spend then 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 American is using 20 tonnes of new materials every year, throwing away about .7 tonnes of garbage, and generating 45 tonnes of waste material (mostly in mining.) For each tonne of material we consume possibly 10 to 20 tonnes of soil, or rock air and water have to be processed or burnt, for example in the blast furnaces making our steel. Thus the things we use carry a large "Rucksack" of additional materials and energy. For gold the multiple is 350,000 to 1 meaning that if you are wearing a gold ring you are carrying around 3.5 tonnes of materials!
THE CAUSAL CONNECTIONS WITH GLOBAL PROBLEMS
Resource depletion 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 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
Magazines. These are luxurious and 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.
Wine. Consumption increases fast as countries become richer.
Eating fruit out of season. When we do this the fruit must either be frozen, canned or transported a long way, and all of these take energy.
STANDARDS ARE FAR TOO “HIGH”, I.E., TOO EXPENSIVE .
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 houses.
WHY DO WE CONSUME SO MUCH?
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.
THE MORAL PROBLEM.
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,
"THE RICH MUST LIVE MORE SIMPLY,
SO THAT 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.
MUST WE DEPRIVE OURSELVES TO SAVE THE PLANET?
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.
EVEN MORE IMPORTANT – OUR RESOURCE-EXPENSIVE SYSTEMS
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: