CONSUMPTION GROWTH 101
Consumption can be defined as the flow of materials and energy through society. Materials or energy are extracted from the environment, transformed or rearranged in some fashion, and then eventually returned to the environment as waste.
Consumption growth is driven by economic growth and population growth. Consumption growth arises due to increase in demand. Increase in demand basically arises from the creation of net new points of consumption. The creation of these new points of consumption is in turn driven by economic and population growth.
In theory economic growth (being an increase in the production of goods and services) can be achieved through efficiency improvements without overall increase in consumption. However for tangible goods and services this is not sustainable for very long since efficiency improvement opportunities are ultimately finite. Overall, economic growth equates to consumption growth. In theory also population can grow without overall increase in consumption. However it is obvious that this can also only be sustained for a short time. In reality an increase in either or both economic growth or population growth leads to consumption growth.
Even though the rate of consumption growth will vary up and down and even at times become negative, it will be exponential in nature. This is because population growth and economic growth are both exponential in nature.
A quantity is growing exponentially if over any fixed period of time the amount of increase divided by the quantity at the start of the period is a fixed multiple. That is: the quantity grows by multiplying. This is as opposed to arithmetic growth whereby the quantity grows by addition.
Management of population growth and economic (tangible development) growth are the pre-requisites for a strategy with the stated objective of managing the overall consumption of a society on an ongoing basis.
At a basic level management of consumption growth is inextricably tied to management of the addition of new points of consumption. (A point of consumption being, for example, a vehicle, an air conditioner, a person etc.) Halting consumption growth ultimately and unavoidably must involve halting the net increase in points of consumption. Imagining that society can somehow halt consumption growth and yet continue to forever create more and more points of consumption is fantasy.
Growth is essential -- but only up to a point. An analogy is to consider the human body. If a child fails to grow the outcome is not good. Yet if an adult fails to stop growing the outcome is also not good. If our society fails to stop physically growing the outcome will inevitably be bad.
Will improving efficiencies reduce consumption?
Trying to reduce consumption by improving efficiencies is somewhat like feeding a crocodile lean meat in the hope that it won't grow bigger.
There are essentially two reasons why efficiency improvements are not the answer to consumption growth.
1. The Jevons Paradox
2. Efficiency improvement opportunities have finite limits
At the macro level efficiency improvements don't reduce consumption. In fact for reasons of basic economics the opposite occurs: overall consumption increases. This is known as the Jevons Paradox or the rebound effect. Efficiency improvements are not even part of the solution to consumption growth.
Not only do efficiency improvements lead to overall consumption growth, even where they reduce consumption at the micro level they have very finite limits. For example, most electricity is consumed in squirrel-cage electric motors. The efficiency of these motors can be typically in the order of 96 to 98 percent -- virtually the end of the road. No amount of technology can do better than that next few percent. Whatever the example, the exploitation of efficiency improvement opportunities eventually hits a brick wall. Growth through continually adding new points of consumption wins out hands down.
It is very unlikely that "if enough people would just try to reduce their personal consumption" overall total consumption will reduce on an ongoing basis. This is because of what is called the Tragedy of the Commons. Problems of commons such as pollution of the atmosphere and rivers, or overfishing, are rarely if ever solved by appealing to individual conscience. These types of problems are solved through enforced laws that are imposed equally upon everyone: even those who have no conscience or who disagree that there is a problem. The higher the density and intensity of human society the more acute become Tragedy of the Commons problems.
Another reason individual efforts are unlikely to reduce consumption on an ongoing basis is the fact that modern economies are based on a paradigm of ongoing economic growth. For societies to grow in some way without increasing overall consumption would require a radical restructuring of the foundations of the global economy. Total consumption reducing rather than increasing would in fact undermine what governments try hard to achieve.
Individual effort to reduce personal consumption ultimately will have negligible impact on overall consumption. However there are some very simple decisions and actions that individuals can take which can have a huge impact. What if you could do something that would eliminate a whole lifetime's worth of consumption, and more? It's not about installing solar panels on your roof, buying a hybrid vehicle, adjusting the thermostat or trying to consume less.
Actions that will have a real impact on consumption are these:
Find and support a charity dedicated to preventing unwanted pregnancies throughout the world.
If you are young, decide to have one less child than you would otherwise like.
It's that simple. And the impact on consumption reduction will literally be immeasurable.
Standard of living essentially equates to level of consumption. ('Quality of life' is another matter.) If the average standard of living throughout the world was the same as the current average standard of living in the developed world then the environment would totally collapse overnight. There just aren't enough resources in the world. The other option is for all current total consumption to be equally distributed to every person on earth. Equity for everyone? The problem with this scenario is that the resulting standard of living would be what most in the developed world would regard as abject poverty. Hence a conundrum: either way the end result is universal poverty. The obvious answer to this dilemma is that global population must reduce.
Is renewable energy key to solving the problem of growing energy demand?
No. Electricity from renewable sources is simply another means of consuming more energy. In a similar fashion to the Jevons Paradox, 'guilt-free' energy contributes to increasing total energy consumption rather than reducing it. Renewable energy can only be deemed to be part of the solution when total energy demand is stable or reducing at the same time as the proportion of renewable energy generation is significantly increasing. The key to solving the problem of growing energy demand is to eliminate demand growth, not feed it.
Here is an easy to understand assessment demonstrating that expectations of solar energy supplying the whole world with energy are fanciful.
Do technology breakthroughs hold hope for dealing with issues such as energy consumption growth and pollution?
Not likely. Expecting technology breakthroughs to somehow solve global environmental issues is like a retirement plan based on winning the lottery. It's a risky proposition.
Key environmental issues are overwhelmingly driven by one or both of either pollution or resource depletion. Pollution and resource depletion are driven by consumption.
In more general terms: All tangible growth has limits. Consuming beyond the regeneration and assimilation limits of the environment must ultimately have undesirable consequences. The issue is not so much about saving the environment as it is about saving humans.
Is climate change linked to human consumption?
One approach to the climate change debate is to look carefully at who is saying what. Imagine that 100 doctors had declared a diagnosis of cancer and prescribed chemotherapy. An accountant and a bricklayer meanwhile were adamantly declaring that the problem wasn't cancer and chemotherapy wasn't necessary. One of the two accuses the doctors of engaging in a grand and elaborate conspiracy. What are the chances that the accountant and bricklayer are right? What are the consequences if their judgement holds sway and they are wrong?
This site is not about climate change. However the weight of expert opinion overwhelmingly leads to the conclusion that the scale and nature of human activity, driven by consumption, is driving changes to atmospheric composition which in turn is driving climate change. The probability of the opposing point of view being right is very small, and the consequences of it holding sway and being wrong are enormous.
Three elements are essential in addressing environmental issues at the broad global level.
1. A firm understanding of the nature of exponential consumption growth.
2. Supporting and promoting a transition to zero population growth, both locally and globally.
In simple terms a Steady-State Economy is one in which:
1. Population growth is zero
2. Consumption growth is zero
How can zero population growth be achieved?
Fertility rates tend to be highest in the developing world. Lowering fertility rates in these regions is closely correlated with improvements in welfare. The following factors reduce population growth, improve welfare and reduce environmental degradation all at the same time.
1. Universal access to contraception and family planning services.
2. Education of girls and empowerment of women. (e.g. empowering women to have control over if and when they become pregnant.)
3. Reducing infant mortality rates. (Couples will have fewer children if they know they will all have a good chance of surviving.)
4. Improving old age welfare. (Couples will have fewer children if they do not have to rely on their children to look after them in their old age.)
5. Changing cultural and religious attitudes which encourage large families.
It should be noted that none of the above measures are coercive or involve promoting abortion.
For countries with already low fertility rates, reducing population growth unavoidably involves restricting immigration. While it is socially attractive to allow mass migration from countries with low standards of living to countries with higher standards of living, the end result is higher overall consumption. In the long term the average standard of living in the world as a whole can only increase if there is a corresponding decline in the total number of people.
The rate of global population growth is decreasing. However it is decreasing from a very high level. The global population is still growing by approximately 1.5 million people every week. This is partly what makes the problem so urgent. There is little certainty that population growth will fall to zero any time soon without a deliberate and concerted effort. Even if and when growth does stop, the greater the stabilised population of the world the fewer resources there will be to share around. With certainty the human population will stop growing eventually. However an uncontrolled halt due to environmental collapses for example could be unpleasant.
Apart from other factors there are many vested interests and ideological forces that will continue to strenuously campaign to reverse low population growth wherever it occurs in the world. If population growth is a major contributing factor to environmental problems there is no justification for believing that the factor will take care of itself.
What is presented on this site is only the 101-level basics of the subject: a good place to start. Click on the following for a Google search of these key advocates and writers on this subject in modern times.
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