More than 8 billion people on Earth; consumption per capita increasing; wealthy countries continuing to consume greatly more per capita than poor ones. Many people embrace the idea of technology providing solutions to maintain consumption. But nothing will increase human sustainability more, and more quickly, than simply cutting consumption drastically, recycling and reforming economies.

Food waste, and the wastefulness of animal-derived food…

With consumption comes waste, so let’s look at that for a change. In the US and Europe, between 25 and 30% of foodstuffs are wasted, accounting for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s double the emissions from flying! One could also argue that diets containing a lot of meat are also quite wasteful. Indeed, they squander an enormous amount of energy and water, and the animals concerned produce a great deal of methane. Methane is turning out to be at least as great a global warming threat as CO2 – in fact, it might even be worse than CO2. Changing to a vegetarian diet, if done right, can reduce greehouse gas emissions by 56%, and going vegan could save up to 70% compared with a typical animal-product-containing diet.

Products should become longer-lived to reduce waste and environmental burden…

A serious problem facing all economies is the need to grow via constantly increasing production. This inevitably goes hand-in-hand with increased consumption. When it comes to objects, that is often very largely embodied by shorter life-spans. It might not even be the physical life-span of the object, because electronics are advancing so quickly that devices suffer information-technology-obsolescence! But many objects just don’t seem to be built to last, be updated, or be mended! The right to repair is a step in the right direction, but it must graduate from smallish electronic devices up to really big things. It’s no trivial point to note that a car is – after a house – the largest object that most people buy in their lives. Containing increasing amounts of highly engergy- and water-intensive ingredients, cars should be lasting longer, not shorter…

What we can learn about cyclical economies from biology…

Is there hope? Yes, not only can biology teach us so much about net-zero greenhouse gas cycles in energy and material, but also about maintaining, mending and adapting/updating. This is basically what biology does in the frame of a single cell, a single organisms, up to the scale of evolutionary time: biology is a „tinkerer“ that works with what it has in very sparing, but superbly adaptive ways. It does „plug-and-play“ games with genes and functions, enabling new functions to be developed from ancient ones, as the need (evolutionary selection pressure) requires. Biology is as close as we can get to the „cradle-to-cradle“ economies that we should be striving for in contrast to the overwhelming „cradle-to-grave“ systems of the present: no nasty junk that ruins the environment, rather a succession of organisms existing, dying and being recycled into new organisms by the cradle of life. If we do not learn from this 3.5-billion-year-old model, then we will have ignored the most important teacher ever to have existed on Earth…

Click here for more about some concerning aspects of consumption, and wise responses…

According to current research, most industrialized countries have a draw on global resources that is equivalent to „using“ 2.5 Earths or more. A few are more modest, e.g. Indonesia comes in at 1.1 Earths.

Technology alone cannot resolve this situation

Some technologies are less sustainable than others, but what ultimately makes them ALL unsustainable is unsustainable behaviour of consumption. Reduction in consumption need not cripple economies if we envisage economies making value by maintaining and mending, as well as producing; after all, mended and maintained objects have preserved value for their owners. This would work with longer life-cycles being envisaged by manufacturers and cradle-to-cradle principles, i.e. designing them to be mendable, updatable and easily recyclable. Business models and consumer behaviour would also need to change.

We have the metrics and computing to warn us, and return to „safe“ behaviour…

Even biology cannot over-consume with its carbon-based economy. What keeps biology’s cyclical economies from imploding is brutal biological and physical feedback: depleted your resources? Then you die!

Clearly we don’t want this brutal type of check on human society and industry. Instead, we must harness our technological evolution and social evolution to help us. We have massive amounts of data, ability to analyze, ways to change behaviour: basically, react to the „negative feedback“ that we perceive. Carbon itself is probably the element on which we have the most data regarding its cycles, concentration in the atmosphere, and sources.

We need input from professionals from many disciplines…

The endeavour to change current consumption habits of industrialized countries would involve all sciences: from applied philosophy, through psychology and sociology, to the natural sciences. It would call upon the responsibility not only of individual consumers, but politicians, governments, industry and the media. It would be our last great effort, and last great chance to save this beautiful planet from irreversible degradation.

Further reading:

> Statista data on the number of Earth equivalents „used“ by various countries
> Cradle-to-Cradle movement, principles and practice
> On the role of social sciences in helping to develop ecologically sustainable behaviour

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024