Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Our Unsustainable, Affluent Society

by Ted Trainer

Faculty of Arts, University of New South Wales

Key themes

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 material below briefly illustrates some of the ways in which each individual in affluent consumer society uses up far more resources than all people in the world could ever use.


o Global resource distribution
o Some examples of our high resource consumption
o Standards are too high; that is, expensive
o Why do we consume so much?
o The moral problem
o Must we deprive ourselves to save the planet?
o Even more important; our resource-expensive systems.

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 servcices must be brought in, access is mostly by car, which is a very resource-expensiove way of travelling, most people must travel out to work and for leisure, and all wastes must be transported out.

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 Global Resource Distribution

Figure 2 shows how very unevenly and unjustly world resource consumption is distributed.

- The one fifth who live in rich countries are getting and using up about 4/5ths of all the resources produced in the world.

- The rich one-fifth are consuming resources at a per capita rate that is 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world's people.

Because we in the rich countries are taking most of the resources, most people in the world are seriously deprived of sufficient resources. This is the main reason why around one billion people are desperately poor and malnourished. This deprivation causes 40,000 avoidable deaths every year in the poorest countries. (The way the global economy delivers most of the world's wealth to the rich is detailed on this website at The Third World.)

Some Examples of our High Resource Consumption

o Throw-away products. We have one-use and throwaway tissues and nappies, bottles, transistor batteries. We even design buildings now so that they can be pulled down easily.

o Packaging. We do not take our containers to the shop to be filled.

o 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. Production of Australian women's magazines takes 3000 barrels of oil per week.

o Soft drinks. More than 65 litres per person in Australia per year 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.

o Wine. Consumption increases fast as countries become richer.

o Beer. In 1985 $42 million was spent in Australia on advertising beer, that is, encouraging people to consume more than they otherwise might have.

o Eating fruit out of season. When we do this the fruit must either be frozen, canned or transported a long way, all of which takes energy.

o Imported food. Australa imports about $3 billion worth of food per year, including oranges from Brazil. We can produce all the food we need here.

o Cards. In one year the Japanese send each other two billion New Year cards consuming 25,000 tonnes of paper and requiring more than 750,000 tonne-kilometres of transport.

o 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 1.8 billion people in the world have to use contaminated and dangerous water because they cannot afford sufficient fuel to boil their water.

o The "beauty" industry. Huge expenditure on cosmetics, hair dressing, fashion, jewellery, models, marketing, magazines et cetera. Australia consumes 250 tonnes of nail polish every year.

o Ironing and dry cleaning. What proportion of these is necessary?

o Lawns. In America more fuel, irrigation, pesticides and fertilizer go into growing lawns than into growing any agricultural crop, including corn, wheat or potatoes.

o Meat. This is a very resource-expensive form of food. For each kilogram of meat we get, the animal has eaten five to ten kilograms 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.

o Advertising. This is one of the most unnecessary and wasteful of all industries. Globally more than $300 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 accecssible without much expense.

o Leisure pursuits in consumer society are often resource and evironmnentally expensive, such as water skiing, horse racing and car racing. There is a world Anti-Golfing League, opposing the spread of golf courses, especiallyin 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.

o 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 been designed not to last or to be repaired. This is especially true of cars and appliances such as transistor radios.

o Houses. Most people want a house that is much bigger and more elaborate than is necessary. In fact most people pay twenty 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. The average Australian house is twice the size of the average house a generation ago.

o Jewellery, precious metals and stones. Large amounts of energy 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.

o 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-intenive way of life in which we would get more exercise from things like gardening, cutting wood and cycling to work.

o Cleanliness. We clean, polish and paint much more than is necessary for tidiness or hygiene.

o Fashion and style. Large volumes of clothes, cars, housing, handbags, et cetera are bought (and scrapped), simply because they are in or out of fashion.

Standards Are Too High, that is, Too Expensive

Most people want goods and services that are of much "higher" quality, that is, 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 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 posessions 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".

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 $300 billion is spent globally every year on advertising. 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 enjoymenmt 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. Millions 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 that "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, et cetera. But there would be many more non-material sources of satisfaction and "wealth".

The Buddhists say we should seek to be "Poor in means, but rich in ends".

It is widely understood that beyond a certain 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 are many of our society's systems that need drastic change. For example:

o Our food supply system must be localised, so we produce food without heavy inputs of energy and we produce it close to where it is eaten, thereby cutting transport costs.

o Our sewer systems must be remade so all soil nutrients can be returned to our local gardens.

o Work places should be decentralised so most people can get to work on foot or on a bicycle and we do not need so many cars and roads.

o Our suburbs at present are leisure deserts; they should be made leisure oases, enabling us to spend much leisure time without travelling and consuming resources.

By far the most profound changes must be made in our economic system. We cannot achieve a just and sustainable society unless we move to an economy that is not driven by market forces, the profit motive and growth (see "Our Economic System" and "The Alternative, Sustainable Society" on this Web site).

The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment, limits to growth, Third World ...) and the sustainable alternative society ( ... simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.

Bill Totten


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