Consumerism or Climate Change: Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death!
- Sep 23, 2021 1:51 pm GMT
Who could have imagined that Patrick Henry, a Founding Father of the American struggle for independence, the Dead Kennedys, a 20th century iconic punk rock band, and anthropogenic climate change, the 21st century's greatest challenge for humanity, would all share a common thread. This thread includes the fact that Mr. Henry during a speech famously stated, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" The Dead Kennedys channelled Henry when they released an album in the late 1980s entitled, "Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death". Their intent was a poignant critique of American consumerism which has unsavory collateral consequences.
These consequences include egregious waste production and excessive and wasteful energy consumption. Not surprisingly, the United States conspicuously leads the world in both municipal solid waste production and energy consumed per capita per day.
The Origins of Consumerism
Consumerism in its earliest forms made life for humans and societal functionality more palatable. The consumption and use of goods and services by consumers drives the economic engine of these societies. Modern consumerism began in Europe in the 1600s. As the age of industrialization and global trade began to emerge with a concomitant decrease in the production costs for goods, price drops. Consumers then began to realize that, in addition to getting what they "needed", they could also acquire that they "wanted", or perhaps, even "coveted." Consumer demand increased because of a more diverse, less-costly array of products. This trend had a concomitant and profound impact on waste production.
Societal perception of consumerism has morphed significantly during the 20th and 21st centuries. Before this time, having appliances and goods that made daily easier was viewed somewhat as a privilege for which one is grateful for having the ability to fulfill basic needs.
Arguably, we are now seeing a global trend toward gluttonous consumerism.The new normal is the reckless purchasing, wanton consumption, and wasting of goods obtained from resources of any kind. It is essentially a pathological, fickle, and temporaneous obsession for material “things” giving birth to the “throwaway society.”
Affluence Increases Resource Wasting and Waste Production
Although society in general yearns for better standards of living for all, this goal appears to come at a steep price. The transition of human populations from lower to higher levels of affluence invariably results in higher per capita levels of resource wasting and waste production. Data extracted from a report by Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata (2012) are plotted in the graph below.
According to this report, world solid waste production is rapidly increasing as urbanization progresses. The amount of municipal solid waste (MSW), is growing even faster than the rate of urbanization.The report estimates that in 2012, about 3 billion residents generated 1.2 kg per person per day or 1.3 billion tonnes per year).
By 2025, 4.3 billion urban residents are projected to create about 1.42 kg/capita/day of municipal solid waste which is 2.2 billion tonnes per year. This means that global MSW generation rates almost doubled in 13 years.
Compulsive Consumption or an American Mautam?
It is hard to argue the implications that trend shown in the figure above. The irony is that as societies strive to improve standards of living, waste production and resource consumption rates both increase unabated.
Nature has a its own searing example of "compulsive consumption run amuck." It is called the Mautam and it arguably serves as a dire warning to human societies.
The Mautam viscerally connotes the consequences of irresponsible overconsumption in nature perpetrated by a culprit, Rattus rattus shown next to related devastation in India in the figure below (Pictures courtesy, Wikipedia and Semantic Scholar). The question is:
Will increasing over-consumption put humanity on a collision course with its own Mautam?
Every 50 years or so in Mizoram in India, bamboo plants drop their fruit in the jungle causing rat populations to skyrocket by several orders of magnitude in just weeks. These rats gorge relentlessly on abundant resources that are suddenly available and prodigiously reproduce. When the fruit is exhausted, marauding hordes of rats descend upon nearby farms and proceed to lay waste to crops and food stores. Once these resources are depleted, the rat population crashes. During this phase, female rats literally begin insatiably eating their new-born pups. The rat populations ultimately return to the levels that were observed prior to the onset of the bamboo fruiting event and the previous status quo is restored. This real phenomenon can readily serve as Nature's version of a medieval morality play for consideration by societies everywhere.
The Dead Kennedys' Have a Valid Point
Despite their irreverent, raucous, and confrontational group persona, DK are right on target with their message concerning gratuitous consumerism. The data shown in the chart above are irrefutable. It is a no win and unsustainable scenario on so many levels. Improving economies for all people is perfectly acceptable. However, improving economies whilst neglecting the fundamentals of sustainably managing societal functionality puts the human societal construct at risk. A new paradigm is needed to ameliorate compulsive and gratuitous consumption and replace it with responsible resource management at all levels of societal functionality to prevent humanity's version of a Mautam.
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