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Consumerism or Climate Change: Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death!

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Alan Rozich's picture
Chief Science Officer Borun

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

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  • Sep 23, 2021 1:56 pm GMT
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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.

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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.

From 1971 to 2018, US municipal solid waste (MSW) production increased by 144% while per capita MSW production rose by 39%.

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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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 23, 2021

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. 

It also brings to mind the bigger picture question-- the base level assumption is that economic growth year over year is required. But is there a ceiling? Is there a point at which GDP growth isn't doable without extensive damage or by causing more problems than it solves? It goes against lots of conventional thinking, and of course the goal should continue to pull more people out of poverty and into a safe, healthy, comfortable life. But there are some big questions to ask here, and the available (or lack there of) energy resources come into play quite directly. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 23, 2021

In general I agree with the points you make regarding consumption here, Alan. But I feel it's necessary to distinguish consumption from "the effects of consumption on the environment."

"Not surprisingly, the United States conspicuously leads the world in both municipal solid waste production and energy consumed per capita per day."

Though reducing consumption would certainly help to avoid the worst effects on climate change, statistics like this can be misleading. For example: Americans may lead the world in MSW production, yet U.S. MSW makes up a tiny fraction of the waste clogging the world's oceans. That's a result of comprehensive national standards for waste disposal (in effect, sequestration) enacted in the 1970s by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. International standards, first and foremost, are necessary to fight pollution of the public marine resources we all share.

And though Americans may lead the world in per-capita energy consumption, is it consumption of energy, or the waste products it creates that are the problem? In per-capita carbon emissions, the U.S. is certainly no hero (twelfth-worst in the world), but we're led by several caliphates in the Middle East - the wellspring of global oil production.

The distinction is an important one. Though China produces the most of #1 greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, on a per-capita basis the Chinese produce half that of their American counterparts; Indians, less than one-third. Both countries claim they will not support any climate accords that limits their economic development, and point to the U.S. as the source of the bulk of excess CO2 in the atmosphere today.

Clearly, the U.S. must lead the way in per-capita GHG reductions. Climate accords have proven consistently useless (evidence indicates the 1992 Kyoto Protocol actually increased CO2 emissions), and it's far too late to settle for solutions that require dependence on fossil-fuel gas. We must demand zero carbon - not carbon "neutrality", "net-zero" carbon, carbon "offsets", or any of the other weasel-worded labels invented to allow continuing dependence on fossil fuels. The clock is ticking, and there's not a moment to lose.

Alan Rozich's picture
Alan Rozich on Sep 23, 2021

Bob, I understand what you are saying. However, the chart showing the impact of affluence on waste production is pivotal. Not only for environmental considerations but also for the sustainable economic functionality of societies. Given that most of the world's population lives at economic levels that are low, the extrapolated implications of bringing those economies and their billions of citizens into the middle class, suggests that world solid waste production will increase dramatically if current practices persist. A corollary consideration is that resource wastage will also rise dramatically exacerbating resource demands and (probably) resource costs.

Consequently, it behooves society to inculcate more resource-efficient practices to ameliorate the aforementioned linkage that currently exists between increased levels of affluence, waste production, and different economic strata in societies.

Thanks for your comment!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 23, 2021

Alan, I think we're on the same page. However, poor economies generate less waste not because of frugality, but poverty. As the standard of living improves for residents in developing countries, we can expect the amount of their waste to rise dramatically - even if they aren't being wasteful.

To limit its effect we must ensure that 1) MSW collection is handled properly, and 2) We in developed countries set an example of economy. I'm not optimistic about the prospects of that, but would like to hear your thoughts.

Alan Rozich's picture
Alan Rozich on Sep 24, 2021

OK, Bob. I will give it a think and shoot you a note. Al

David Svarrer's picture
David Svarrer on Sep 25, 2021

Hi Bob, you are writing 

"is it consumption of energy, or the waste products it creates that are the problem?"

It is in fact the waste products which are the problem.

CO2 may not be a problem as such, as it is by many considered being, by far, not a strong green house gas, but an excuse (!) to not address the real problem - deforestation of 10% of Earth's surface - since 1850 - which has removed the trees on 15 million square kilometers of land due to all sorts of reasons - a process which is still ongoing with several soccer fields every second, resulting in more than 700,000 square kilometers of forest still net being removed (the net aforestation is included in this figure). CO2 is according to many, indeed a green house gas, but by 2-figured factors such weak compared to even H2O (water), that it has insignificant effect on the climate. Therefore a still small minority of climate researchers categorize CO2-levels more as a very accurate indicator of the equilibrium between Oxygen producers and Oxygen consumers - which also could thereby be indicating the equilibrium between living oxygen consumers and the plants on land and plants in the oceans. 

Therefore, in a climate discussion perspective, we may not experience so much trouble arising from the raising CO2, but more from the lack of trees. Trees have, in their simple capacity of being present, a strong buffer effect on temperature, by absorbing energy from winds, the very power consuming evaporation of water, and absorbing solar power during the photo-synthesis process thereby binding the absorbed energy in the wood material. Finally the effect of trees are also due to their content of water which is significant. A typical forest contains thousands of tonnes of water per hectare, which, as H2O has one of the highest energy capacities of all materials on Earth, again works as a buffer too. 

The waste is therefore - in my view - the largest problem, mostly due to a production which does not care whether a product weighing for instance 3 kilogram, being a very highly technological product - will stop working when an 11 gram ball bearing stops working and the machine cannot be repaired!

Therefore, the waste is maybe the seriously damaging outcome, but our production methods are likely much more to blame. How can we continue making washing machines which spoils after only 5 to 10 years of operation? How can we continue producing plastic basins which spoils by being exposed to sunlight for just 2 to 4 years? How can we continue producing water pipes of which ever material, in ways which are not sustainable? We claim that "it does not pay off" to make water pipes of for instance stainless steel - as these cost a whopping 3 times more than iron pipes - yet - they last by factors way above 3 times longer, and can be reused if decommissioned. 

Sincerely

David 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 25, 2021

"CO2 is according to many, indeed a green house gas, but by 2-figured factors such weak compared to even H2O (water), that it has insignificant effect on the climate."

David - Water vapor, like carbon dioxide, does tend to prevent radiation of heat out to space, and water vapor concentration has been increasing in the last 180 years. Though that leads many to believe excess water vapor is causing global warming, it's not a cause, but a symptom of increased CO2 in the atmosphere:

CO2 makes up only about 0.04% of the atmosphere, and water vapor can vary from 0 to 4%. But while water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, it has 'windows' that allow some of the infrared energy to escape without being absorbed. In addition, water vapor is concentrated lower in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 mixes well all the way to about 50 kilometers up. The higher the greenhouse gas, the more effective it is at trapping heat from the Earth’s surface.

The burning of fossil fuels affects the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Before the industrial revolution, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 288 ppm. We have now reached about 414 ppm, so we are on the way to doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of this century. Scientists say that if CO2 doubles, it could raise the average global temperature of the Earth between two and five degrees Celsius. We are already increasing the amount of energy that bounces back to the Earth. Because of the greenhouse effect, this is causing global warming with its many destructive impacts."

If CO2 Is Only 0.04% of the Atmosphere, How Does it Drive Global Warming?

"Trees have, in their simple capacity of being present, a strong buffer effect on temperature, by absorbing energy from winds, the very power consuming evaporation of water, and absorbing solar power during the photo-synthesis process thereby binding the absorbed energy in the wood material."

Again, here you're confusing cause with effect. When forests are cleared and burned, carbon in the trees  which has been sequestered as the hydrocarbons cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, is emitted as carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). These greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise be radiated out to space - then, the warmer atmosphere in turn causes more water to evaporate. In climatology this effect is known as a positive feedback - more CO2 in the atmosphere leads to more water in the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect. But if we were able to magically pull all of the water from the atmosphere into the oceans, without changing CO2 concentration, water would soon evaporate to reach its prior concentration in the atmosphere. CO2 is the cause, atmospheric humidity is the effect.

For the most part I'd agree with the need to limit consumption, and recycle whenever possible. But from a climate standpoint, discarded materials are not as much of a problem as generating energy to make new ones. A polycarbonate acrylic sink or plastic fork, for example, could last for >30,000 years in a landfill, effectively sequestering all the carbon in the oil that was needed to make it. Burn that sink or fork, however, and we've added CO2 that the air which will warm the planet for up to 1,000 years.

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