In the first article in this series, I laid out a consumer consumption-driven world where our needs are never quite met by things. Our needs are now mistranslated into a desire for objects that we do not yet have. Yet when we get that t-shirt, pair of headphones or gadget it never fills the needful emptiness that cries out for even more things. Commercials and ever better products have created a shiny Skinner Box where we are conditioned to ever be wanting more. Shelves groan under self-help books, over 10% of people in the US take antidepressants, while US adults spend 6 hours a day watching video. This means that if this trend continues a US adult is looking forward to a life of which they’ll spend at least 17 years watching video. We’re self-medicating through pills, consumption and the diversions of video. As household energy and materials consumption in the rich worlds rises, our vegetative habits are making an ever greater impact on the world.
Millennials and the young are either completely wrapped up in this consumer-driven world or developing a strong allergy to it. A focus on experiences is, to me, a reaction to the ennui of contemporary life. At the same time, I would hazard a guess that many young would-be anxious at the prospect of not having internet for a day or two. Older generations are also looking more at nature, exploring the woods, eating more naturally and having more traceable products in their lives. To me your local hipster left-handed 100% bio fruit dry ice made kefir ice cream is, to me, both a more interesting choice in a product littered world and also driven by genuine discomfort at the many bad choices out there. We are driven to ever more exotic “better choices” in a cluttered poor choice world.
Our current rates of consumption are unsustainable. You know this but it doesn’t worry you as much as your mortgage or the Dow. Its as if we’re at a sunny picnic and know somehow that rain is coming but we pick away at scones with cream, unencumbered. Let’s look at the OECD Environment at a Glance publication to look at what our current situation is:
- The amount of materials extracted globally doubled between 1980 and 2010, and is projected to double again by 2060.
- A person living in the OECD area generates on average 520 kg of municipal waste per year; this is 30 kg less than in 2000, but still 20 kg more than in 1990.
- More and more waste is fed back into the economy through recycling, but landfilling remains the major disposal method in many OECD countries and many materials get recycled into low value products.
- Global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) continue to grow. They have increased by 50% since 1990, and by 35% since 2000, driven by economic growth and fossil energy use.
- About 19 Gt of materials are consumed per year; almost half of them in the OECD America region.
- A person living in an OECD country consumes on average about 15 tonnes of materials per year.
- This is 22% less than in 2000 (19 tonnes per person), but still higher than in other world regions (about 12 tonnes per person).
- The raw material consumption or material footprint of the OECD area increased by 60% since 1990 and reached almost 33 Gt in 2017.
- The per capita footprint, is generally higher (25 tonnes per person on average) than DMC per capita (15 tonnes per person on average).
- Europeans generate on average about 110 kg less than people living in the Americas but 100 kg more than people living in the OECD Asia-Oceania region.
- Worldwide, an estimated 2 billion tonnes of municipal waste were generated in 2016 (an average of 270 kg per person) and this amount is expected to grow further (World Bank, 2019).
- 80% of all marine litter is plastics.
- If current trends continue, there could be more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050.
More plastics than fish in the ocean is a staggeringly horrific achievement for us humans. A real takeaway for me is that we each consume 15 tonnes of material per year. This is a staggering amount of material. Some of this stuff is recycled but “into low value products.” To me one possible solution to significantly make this planet safer from humans is to take a lot of what is already consumed and transform it into high-value materials that displace the consumption of new materials. To me, we can then repurpose the waste streams that we generate into local production of high-value mass customized goods. If we look at all of the daunting problems and trade-offs with the environment here we have a relatively simple path to developing a subset of certain waste streams into high value things that people want. Will it save the world? No. But, it will be a new way to consume more responsibly and perhaps in a more enjoyable way as well.
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