Sustainable Consumption

 by Attila Gyenis


sustain verb [<L. sub-, under + tenere, hold] 1. to keep in existence: maintain or prolong 2. to provide nourishment for 3. to support; carry the weight 4. to endure; withstand

 consume verb [<L. com-, together + sumere, take] 1. to destroy, as by fire 2. to use up (time, money etc.) 3. to eat or drink up


We live on a planet with limited natural resources. We are consumers of natural resources. To get straight to the basic questions, how do we achieve a sustainable society? Will it require sustainable consumption? Or sustainable production? Can it be either? Must it be both?  Is 'sustainable consumption' an oxymoron?

The answer is fairly simple. Either you have sustainable consumption, or you have unsustainable consumption. I will let you look up the definition of ‘unsustainable.’ One thing is clear. We are not practicing sustainable living. The natural resources are dwindling while our population is increasing. We cannot assure future generations of an adequate supply of clean air, safe water, or a healthy food supply.

Contrary to what the corporate media would want you to believe, there is a natural limit to how much our society can safely and sustainably consume. That limit is governed not by the dollars in your pocket, but by the natural capacity of the planet’s environment. The Earth has a finite amount of natural resources and no amount of money can change that fact. Oh yes, through some expensive process we could change all the coal into diamonds, but after the coal runs out you will still find that you are still limited by the earth's (diminished) capacity. And don’t be fooled, having a pocketful of diamonds won't help if you don't have clean air or safe drinking water. When will we reach the point where our planet can no longer support us?

Here's how you consume natural resources. Every time you buy something, you are consuming resources. Your house, your clothes, your food, your water, your SUV, and your shampoo all result in the depletion of natural resources. There are very few human activities that don't consume natural resources. Consumption in itself is not a bad or evil thing. Animals and plants consume.

The concern is that society is increasing its rate of consumption in two ways. First, there is a constant increase in global population that does not take into consideration the limited resources of the planet. Second, individuals are now consuming more than they did 30 years ago. Just look at how many cars, phones, and TVs a household has now compared to 30 years ago.

The first realization: We cannot continue to believe we have an unlimited amount of natural resources.



Why can't the capitalist system provide a nice techno-fix so that we could have unlimited resources? Nice try. All techno-fixes do is to substitute one resource for another. And even though there may be more of one resource than the other, all resources are limited.

Some people continue to have the mistaken belief we could have unlimited resources if we switch to hybrid cars or alternative fuels. Or that our energy concerns would be eliminated if we switch to fluorescent light bulbs. Or that through genetic modification, we can grow enough food to meet the ever-growing demand of our increasing population.

While conservation and certain technological changes are desirable and necessary in order to attain a sustainable society, they will not provide a 'green' fix that will allow for unlimited consumption. 

The second realization: We will not find a technological fix that will allow us to consume unlimited resources.


Renewable Resources

Some members of society like to point out that there are some natural resources that are renewable. Examples of renewable resources include trees, food products, water, fish, etc.

Are there renewable resources that are unlimited?

We need to clarify the question in order to answer it clearly. Solar power is a renewable resource. Everyday there is a new supply of solar energy hitting the earth. But it is a finite amount of solar energy each day. If you are asking if renewable resources will allow you to consume as much as you want, the answer is still no. We cannot consume more solar energy than hits the earth each day.

There is also a limit to the rate at which other natural resources renew themselves. Unfortunately, some industries continue to imply that 'renewable' resources are unlimited. The keyword here is sustainable. If you use the resource at a rate faster than it renews itself, you will eventually deplete that resource. If you catch fish faster than they reproduce, you will eventually catch the last remaining fish. Currently, there are very few extractive industries (timber, fishing, etc.) that 'harvest' renewable resources at a sustainable rate.

It is not always easy to determine the sustainable rate of consumption for a particular resource, much less a whole ecosystem. Here in Northern California, where less than 5% of the original old-growth Redwood forests remain, there is an on-going debate between timber companies and community members to determine the rate of sustainable logging. How much of a forest should be cut? Of course, trees are not the only consideration. There are other animal and plant species within the forest eco-system that need to be sustained, and their viability must be taken into consideration and protected.

Renewable resources must be the major component of a sustainable economy, but it should not be confused as unlimited resources. 

The third realization: The term 'renewable' resource does not imply it is an 'unlimited' resource.


Abundant Resources

Another term frequently used is 'abundant.' It implies that there is a surplus of that resource. The fishing industry and the oil industry seem to use the term frequently. As proof of their contention, they point to the 'abundance' of their catch.

We have seen several times throughout history how industry has turned an abundance of a natural resource into the extinction of that resource. Fish and oil are a little different, in that fish are a renewable resource, where oil is a finite amount.

In John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, we see a whole sardine industry develop in Monterey, California. Its only purpose was to catch and can sardines--which they did until they ran out of fish. Today, it is being repeated with several other fish species. We need to ask ourselves, what does 'abundant' mean?

Maybe when we see a large number of fish, it is actually the number needed for the species to survive and the term ‘abundant’ is a misnomer. It certainly shouldn't be seen as a license to help yourself to as much as you want. We know that when a species falls below a certain number, that it is headed for extinction. It is an outdated notion that we only need the last 2 of a species to repopulate the world. By the last two, it is too late.

Then we have the oil industry that is slowly draining the planet of all available oil, with devastating effects during its extraction and use, not to mention the political and social cost in terms of war and social upheaval. We have never paid for the true cost of oil, and we don’t worry very much about the global warming it causes, especially since the car makes everything so convenient (or so we think).

We are dependent upon a resource that is clearly limited, yet the oil industry wants to convince us that there is an abundant supply, and all they have to do is drill a hole for it in places like the Arctic refuge, or fight a war in a country like Iraq.  

The fourth realization: Resources that we are led to believe as being abundant are in fact limited.



Everybody is familiar with Einstein's E =mc2,  that the total energy in the universe can be neither created or destroyed. But most people overlook the effects of Entropy. A basic definition of entropy states that while the total quantity of energy never decreases, the amount of useable energy does decrease as it is being consumed.

Resources from which we get energy can be changed from a useful state to a useless state. Examples would be a piece of wood or a battery in your clock. An unburned piece of wood contains energy that is useful to us. By igniting it, we are able to release it's energy and heat our room. Once the wood has burned however, the remaining ashes are no longer useful to us as a source of heat energy.

The battery is your kitchen clock eventually runs down as it is being used, and will get to the point where it is no longer usable to run the clock. This is an example of entropy. We must understand that not only is there a limited amount of energy available on our planet, but that the amount available for consumption is actually reduced every time we use energy.

The concept of entropy doesn't just apply to energy. It can apply to any natural resource. We take many natural resources and turn them into something that one day is no longer useful. Many consumed products end up in landfills. This includes paper products, plastic wrap, computers, and other electronic toys we have gotten tired of. By consuming these products, we are slowly turning our planet's resources into useless heaps of garbage. 

The fifth realization:  The quality of available energy and natural resources declines as we consume them through a process called entropy.



In order to find a solution, we must first understand the problem. We have a culture that desires unlimited consumption, but we live on a planet with limited resources. Some people know that you can't always get want you want. No amount of techno-fixing or 'greening' will change that self-evident truth. Some people may think this is a dilemma, but it is not. The solution should be fairly evident. We must change our current culture of over-consumption.

Is it possible for society to achieve sustainable consumption?

Let's hope so. Clearly, we cannot depend upon government or industry alone to ensure that companies produce at a sustainable level. Nor can we continue our current culture where society is more concerned about being entertained by their televisions than the implications of their over-consuming lifestyle. Any culture change will first have to overcome the inertia of 10,000 years of unsustainable consumption. So how is this culture change going to come about (if it will at all)?

To begin, we will have to completely revamp society's priorities. We will have to fundamentally change how social, political, and corporate decisions are made. We need a vision where the needs of the people and the planet are placed ahead of individuals and corporations. Where our government sends in an army not to protect the financial interests of oil companies, but to ensure the protection of environmental resources. Where a politician talks first about protecting drinking water, and only afterwards about jobs. Where a corporate board member talks not about the cheapest place to manufacture a product, but about the safety, health, and environmental standards he requires before signing any contract. Where we understand that as a society, we cannot consume more that the natural limits of the planet, and that this responsibility extends to each of us individually. You cannot have a sustainable society or economy without a sustainable environment.

Are we doing anything right? Yes-- recycling, conservation, organic foods, local economies--all are steps in the right direction. We see individuals and groups involved in improving the quality of life. Not just for themselves, but for the benefit of all people and future generations.

But it is not enough. We need to see more than just a shift in the mainstream. This message is not a call for an alternative way of living. This is a call for a new dominant paradigm. It is a call for a new social order. It requires society to evolve. If we do not embrace these ideas as a society, then we have failed as a society. These steps are essential for our survival as a species.

Imagine the day when society rises above its current limitations, and starts embracing the values that we inherently desire and hopefully are capable of reaching.

But before change can happen, two realizations must occur to us as a society. First, we must have an awareness of the consequences of our actions, and recognize the folly of our culture of over-consumption. And second, we must personally take on the responsibility to make a change within ourselves. Only then will we seek the information and tools that are necessary to bring about a sustainable society. Peace.



Attila Gyenis was an assistant editor of Culture Change []. He is also an activist, bookseller, and songwriter, in addition to his part-time day job.


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