As discussed in the article ‘the fundamental principle of businesses’, we consume the goods or services provided by producers such as companies. The more products we consume, the more we promote companies to increase supply. In other words, individuals’ consumption is the driving force for the growth of companies. It is natural to assume that companies produce products and consumers buy, use, and dispose them. It also seems to be a never ending, continuous cycle. Can we consume forever? The answer is a resounding “no” because the earth has limited resources. In this article, we will explore why individuals must move towards sustainable consumption and why we have to act now.
The world with limited resources
The earth is a planet that does not exchange materials with space other than light. We get sunlight and asteroids from space and we launch space shuttles and satellites into space, but neither space nor the earth exchange materials frequently. Thus, earth is a somewhat isolated planet. This means that everything on earth stays inside earth. However, this does not mean that earth is stagnant; instead things on earth change its form every single moment. We find giant rocks being broken into pieces and converted to sand. Dead organisms decomposed over time and recycled into other organisms. In other words, everything on earth is simply transforming to another form after some time. Why do these changes occur? The answer is simple – to keep the balance as discussed in the article ‘evolution is balance directed’. To summarize, animals cannot survive without plants, plants cannot survive without animals, and neither of them can survive without non-organic matter such as water and air; thus, balance formed among all the materials reside within planet earth. For example, if the soil was rich and ideal for plants to grow, plant population would increase. When there are more plants, the number of plant eaters (herbivores) would also increase. If the population of plant eaters increased, the condition would increase the population of meat eaters (carnivores). In other words, any change to the balanced-world would result in another change which in turn would lead to another change and so forth. The connections of these changes will continue until every thing on earth is connected like a three dimensional spider web. Some of the changes may happen fast and some of the changes may happen very slowly. For example, it may take only a few days to decompose a dead animal’s flesh but it could take a several millions of years to produce oil by nature. These are cycles designed by nature for each material on earth.
However, the natural cycle and the intricate balance are being altered by human activities. With increased technological advances, our activities have been accelerating the transformation of materials (natural resources). Oils have been pumped out to meet the people’s demand and the burning oils have been converted to other types of gases including carbon dioxide. Trees, the natural carbon dioxide filter and oxygen generator, have been cut down to meet people’s need. With these types of activities, the balance of the earth has been changed much too fast and it is being accelerated as time goes. What would be the consequences of these activities? Answer to this question wouldn’t be hard to figure out. Changes in carbon dioxide (stands for Green House Gases in this article) concentration would result in temperature changes, which in turn changes climates (ref 2). In addition to the climate changes, there would be conflicts over the natural resources among countries or societies. However, the majority of us do not want to think about these consequences nor take the responsibilities. Instead, what many of us want to do is to continue consuming our limited resources.
It is very hard to think about life without consuming goods or services. This is because we need to consume to survive. We have to eat, drink, and protect ourselves. However, consuming to survive is not the focus in this article. It is about the other types of consumption – that is consumption for consumption. For example, one person bought a smart phone last year and has used it until now. This year, the company released a newer version of the phone and the person buys it because it has more functions built in. (Some people buy it before knowing what features are added on in reality.) Buying newer version of the smart phone drives companies to develop new or newer version of the products to make more money. To develop and produce newer version to generate more profit, the companies need to dig up more natural resources. Here we find major connections among individuals’ consumption, businesses, global warming, environmental changes, and natural resources. The first, as individuals consume products, the money flows to the producers (companies). The producers generate profit and use this profit to promote individuals to consume more by producing new or improved versions. As the company produces more and individuals consumes more, overall economy grows. However, there is one very important factor we are missing at this point – the source of the products. To produce something, there should be the starting/source materials and the materials are ultimately the natural resources. This means that as individuals consume more products, companies will consume more natural resources. As the company processes more natural resources, they use more energy and generate more carbon dioxide and other waste products. As carbon dioxide levels increase, climate changes will be accelerated. In addition to the climate change, natural resources will be depleted faster. This means that the future of human life isn’t as bright as we think.
What are the issues related to individual consumption?
Population: We hear that population is exploding. More people consume more natural resources involved with food, clothing, and shelter. This is a natural process for people to survive. However, the real issue is, as we discussed above, not the consumption for survival but consumption for economic power. Since an individual is a consumer, increased population generally reflects higher potential for economic growth. This is because businesses are dependent on individuals’ consumption and the population is a source of economic growth. This means if population decreases, overall economy would also go down together and we find some countries are worried about population decline.
Economic growth: As mentioned above, economic growth relies on individuals’ consumption. This means that most of companies have to promote individuals to spend and choose their products. As individuals spend their money on the products, it stimulates companies to produce more. During this cycle, the overall economy would be, we consider, in good standing. In other words, when the economy is good it could mean faster consumption of natural resources.
Fundamental basis of the problems: There are many different types of initiatives around the world under the phrase ‘Save Earth.’ Some speak about dematerialization while others speak about recycling programs. However, we find that all these activities are not as effective as planned. This is because the consequences of these activities could have a direct impact on the economy. Recycling sometimes costs more than using natural resources. Dematerialization requires development of technology that could cost more than developing a new product. Most importantly, if individuals consume sustainably, economy may crash in no time since sustainable consumption means reduced consumption. This is the basis of all the problems. Many of us do not want our economy to slow or shrink because it will cause inconvenience to our lives.
The consequences of non-sustainable consumption
Individuals need to understand the consequences that we would pay if the natural resources run out and the natural balance is irreparably broken. Strictly speaking, individuals have to choose one of two ways. We can continue on our present course where we consume without limit and accept either suffering or extinction in the near future. The alternative would be the way that we consume in a sustainable approach, even though we may experience an economic crisis. When we consider our offspring, the later choice would be the best. However, economic situations may force people to go back to and choose the first option. Would there be any alternative way? There might be if we act now. It is to develop sustainable businesses to replace current ones and stop the non-sustainable business gradually. To do this, there are many actions for individuals should do; they would be, #1. buy goods or services that we need and do not buy if we don’t really need it; #2. reduce the consumption that is based on affordable pricing of the product or simply based on convenience or “bells-and-whistles;” #3. getting proper education that provides connections of our activities with the consequences of our actions.
We often say that we need to save earth. However, earth is a planet and what we really have to think about is human. Throughout earth’s history, there were five major extinctions in the past including dinosaurs. After these extinctions, planet earth recovered and retrieved new balances. Even if humans became extinct, planet earth would continue to exist and keep the balance. This means that it is just matter of time for new species to come to emerge in another newly balanced world. This means that it is time for us to change the phrase ‘save earth’ to ‘save humans.’