Environmental Sustainability and Our Consumer Economy

With the increasing need for our global society to focus on environmental sustainability we are faced with coming to terms with the high cost of our consumer society on the biosphere. This task is made ever more difficult because the entirety of our social lives revolve around the continual growth of consumerism to drive profit, enabling us to pay to live.

The Cost of Consumerism

It is no easy task to assess the cost of consumer culture on environmental sustainability. It’s not as simple as weighing the functional lifespan of a product and its impact as waste once discarded. There are entire chains of resource gathering, refinement, production, distribution and storage to take into account. None of these aspects of a product are easy to identify for the average consumer. We are in no way encouraged to consider these facets of the products we are inspired to acquire.

Crude oil is a key product in the chain of everything available in our global economy. While very few of us actively buy oil by the barrel, we all pay for it indirectly in our daily purchases. The cost of crude oil to environmental sustainability is of course enormous. From leaks at oil wells, such as the Deepwater Horizon which spewed approximately sixty thousand barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico a day, to spills from transport like the Exxon Valdez (more than two hundred forty four thousand barrels) or the Kolva River spill (more than 1.8 million barrels of oil), environmental harm is not only common but long lasting.

While leaks and spills are visually apparent with immediate examples of harm, the most insidious damage to environmental sustainability is not so easily seen. The refining process of crude and burning of petroleum fuel produces both greenhouse gas emissions and releases BTEX compounds, which are hazardous to health. Both international shipping and international aviation produce more greenhouse gas emissions annually than many countries around the world, ranking as the eight and thirteenth worst emitters in the world respectively in 2017.

Further, a 2016 look at greenhouse gas emissions generated by sector, found that transport produced 16.2 per cent globally. It also found industry, not including iron and steel production, accounted for a further 17 per cent of emissions. That is one third of generated emissions connected to oil. Landfills and commercial buildings add a further 8.5 per cent of emissions, arguably making consumer culture responsible for more than 40 per cent of greenhouse emissions, with oil being directly connected to at least 33 per cent. At first glance this may lead many to see oil as our enemy, but this is not the case. Advanced human society relies on oil production to be maintained, the underlying problem is our rampant use of this resource. We are not using oil, or anything else on our planet for that matter, economically.

Environmental Sustainability and Consumerism

Our economy lies at the foundation of our environmental sustainability difficulties. We can not continue to waste resources, generate pollution and destroy ecosystems to sate our material wants and maintain a social system which relies upon a conditioned desire to procure. If we are to thrive as a species into the future we will need to face the underlying driver of biosphere declines. To abate and mitigate the impacts of drought, fire, flooding, increased storm intensity, and indeed pandemics will require our desire for environmental sustainability to come to the fore.

When we reflect on our consumer based economic model and ask ourselves the hard questions about what matters, the next fifty versions of some great gadget or a planet that supports life, will be when we know we have a chance to secure a future for our species. Sadly, if our thoughts remain preoccupied with how we will earn money or where profits will come from, well, if that kind of thinking continues to dominate the social conversation it is difficult to see a way for our species to overcome the myriade of global declines it is currently faced with.