Prior to the 20th century it was known as consumption because it consumed the body of the sufferer – drastic weight loss was one of its more glaring symptoms. Today, fortunately, tuberculosis (or simply TB) is largely eradicated in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Not so in sub-Saharan Africa and most of Asia however, where it affects more than 750 people per 100,000 of the population. In some parts of these continents the rate of infection can be 2,000 or 3,000 or more per 100,000.
The disease is so prevalent in Africa and Asia that in 1993 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared TB a “global health emergency.”
The Western Disease
In the west we may have eradicated TB but we haven’t got rid of the disease of consumption. We’ve just transformed it. Our consumerist society is eating away at our collective body just as surely as TB eats away at the individual body. This western version of the disease of consumption has another name – affluenza. Indeed, there are at least three books out with that title.1
Yet, we are unwilling to talk about it. When we talk about solving the climate change crisis the discussion often revolves around renewable energy sources, green technology, and/or recycling. These, although laudable, all address only one side of the equation – the supply side. We seem unwilling to discuss the demand side - our rampant consumerism.
So, allow me to talk about it a little. Every year we extract 55 billion tons of bio-mass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals from the earth. This is expected to rise to 80 billion tons within the next four or five years. Much of this is converted into stuff that we buy or consume in one way or another. We buy it, and then what happens? 99% of what we buy is trashed within 6 months. OECD countries generate over 2 kg of municipal solid waste per person – per day! High levels of waste also occur in some of the world’s poorest island nations, often because of that other favourite consumer activity – tourism from rich nations.
Lets think about renewable energy. The saviour of the planet we hear from some climate change activists. Is it? A few calculations suggest that pinning our hopes to a sustainable world, where global temperature rise does not exceed 2 degrees Celsius, is a forlorn hope if all we do is convert to renewable energy and green technology. Currently, the world average electricity consumption per capita is 3 MWh per year. In western nations consumption is around 8 MWh per person per year. Over 40% of this consumption is by industry with private residences making up a little over one-quarter. Transport consumes just 1-2% of global electricity.
One of the recent glad tidings coming from the renewables sector is that of battery storage. Tesla and others have made tremendous strides in battery technologies, and these are often highlighted. But, wait a moment. These batteries use lithium. Our current rate of extraction and use of lithium is around 40,000 tonnes per year. If we we want to power our new Prius or other hybrid or fully-electric vehicle, plus store electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources, then by 2040 we are going to require 800,000 tonnes of lithium per year. With known reserves of lithium we could manage that until about the mid 2050s. This assumes too, that Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina2 are going to allow rich foreign corporations to mine their countryside.
Lithium mining is not without its environmental and social impacts. The extraction of lithium from the salt planes of the Atacama Desert and elsewhere requires a lot of water and the use of toxic chemicals. As these areas are arid, the high use of water by lithium mining means that local communities and flora and fauna in these area are deprived access to clean water. Already local communities in northern Chile and those around the Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina are claiming that lithium mining is contaminating local water sources used by humans, livestock, and crop irrigation.
We Have To Talk About Consumption
Our global population is expanding (expecting to reach 9 billion people by the middle of this century) and along with it the expectation of electricity by those in the emerging economies. Certainly, renewable sources must be developed and used. But, we cannot expect to continue doing so in the affluent way that we presently do. We must do something about our consumption. Not just hold it at present levels, but reduce it.
What if we had a bathtub that was overflowing? The majority of our present thinking about climate change solutions is like building up the sides of the bath to hold the water in, or maybe devising an automated, solar-powered, siphon to transfer the water to another tub. When what we really need to do is turn the tap off!
It is us, in the western world that need do something about our consumption. This is not suggesting that it is simply up to the individual consumer to make choices. Although the individual can take action to down-size, buy organic, local goods, and swap their lightbulb for an eco-friendly one, the actions we need are systemic. Western consumption is a disease of the whole cultural body, and needs to be tackled holistically and using systems thinking.
But first, we have to start talking about it. We have to stop putting our faith in technical solutions (even green ones). Like any disease we have to start with a thorough diagnosis.
1. Affluenza is the title of books by: i) John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor (2001), ii) Oliver James (2008), and iii) Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss (2005).
2. Between them, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina contain over 50% of the worlds known reserves of lithium.