Leverage Point 2: Consumption
Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
For many years, the primary message from the climate, conservation, and environmental communities has been that—in order for society to become more sustainable—we need to change industries and their production, not our total demand. Consumers have, however, been asked to buy differently, e.g., shade-grown coffee and organic produce.
It has become clear that no matter how well we manage resource extraction and industrial production, we cannot achieve sustainable futures without reining in our aggregate consumption.
There are three primary components of total human consumption: human population size, per-capita consumption, and waste.
Don’t let the ‘per-capita’ fool you into thinking that important consumption decisions are at the individual level. Of course there are some things we can do alone, but the most important thing we can do is to change supply chains and systems of production so that it’s easy for everyone to reduce their consumption.
Different regions and nations have different challenges here. Most high-income nations are not growing their human populations (except by immigration); they need to focus on reining in consumption. In these nations, many people are consuming far more than they need, and often more than what would boost their well-being. The challenge here is to enable people to be fulfilled while consuming less, which links with Leverage Point 1, Visions of a Good Life.
In most low-income nations, many people need to increase their consumption to live a decent life. At a minimum, they need proper shelter, nutritious food, and access to technologies that will enable them to learn and flourish. But in many of these nations, fertility rates are much higher than replacement, meaning that these nations are growing unsustainably. The task in these contexts is to enable people to make choices consistent with population stabilization, while seeking a kind of development that doesn’t follow the unsustainable paths of many high-income nations.
In all contexts, waste is excessive, requiring needless extra resources and contributing additionally to pollution (e.g., rotting food emits methane and other greenhouse gases). The source of the problem varies, however, with high-income nations generally wasting more within households (for food), and low-income nations wasting more within supply chains. All contexts can benefit greatly from putting resources to good and perpetual use, eliminating waste in a circular economy that returns materials to a useful form at the end of a product’s lifecycle (see Leverage Point 7, Innovation, Investment and Technology).
To support needed changes in consumption, we can do the following: (1) Model and advocate for good lives rooted in relationships rather than material consumption; (2) Combat inequalities that fuel unsustainable consumption and population growth; (3) Facilitate the widespread global education and empowerment of women (which—important in its own right—also fosters sustainable fertility); (4) Seek infrastructure and urban planning that enables people to live happily without owning cars, large homes, etc.
Managing total global consumption doesn’t need to mean living in poverty or decreasing human population size to 1 billion people. Success at this leverage point could mean every person on the planet living fulfilling lives. Some people will likely need to consume less, and others more. Population growth will need to be reduced wherever it is above replacement (2.1 children per woman).