Consumption is a multifaceted issue with no simple solution. However, steps must be taken in order to avert the current planetary course. Ideal goals to attain to strive for a sustainable future would be an average consumption of 2,500 kilowatt-hours, 2,500 calories, and 45 cubic meters of water per person. The concept of consumption has an underlying basis, dealing with population, and can be further elaborated to the topics of energy, food, and water.
To properly understand current and future global consumption we must look to population data. In 2016, Earth’s human population was reported to be over 7.4 billion people and growing at a rate of 0.7%. The United Nations predicts that by the year 2100 total population will have grown to 11.8 billion. Each individual will have base consumption needs for various resources.
Since the advent of electricity, energy has been the driving force behind human advancement at all levels. Energy production can be credited with being the catalyst of many modern innovations in a diverse number of fields, heralding a period of relative prosperity and a population explosion. However, the benefits of energy present a Sisyphean dilemma, as the increased energy production results in the ability to provide for more people, which in turn demands more energy. The population of the country is also usually heavily indicative of its state of development.
We know there is correlation between development and energy consumption. Developed countries such as the UK and the US have a significantly larger energy consumption than other developing countries. It is also important to note that even within these developed countries, the US still consumes about twice as much energy as the UK, despite similar gross domestic incomes (GDI). This statistic reveals that there is an energy efficiency issue.
An average resident of the United States, consumes 10,766 kilowatt-hours per year, and if this consumption is extrapolated for all people in the world, the total energy consumption would reach about 80 trillion kilowatt-hours. In comparison to those in developing countries, such as India, with an average of 1,054 kilowatt-hours a year, this extrapolation would only reach about 8 trillion kilowatt-hours. The developed world’s level of energy consumption is just unviable and must be reduced momentously. With an environmentally generous projection of consumption to be about 20 trillion kilowatt-hours, which implies an allotment of roughly 2,500 kilowatt-hours per person, this projection must be followed in order to ensure a level of sustainable development. This must be an essential concession that must be reached by all people globally in order to avoid the tragedy of the commons and ensure a future and world without fear of collapse.
There is more than enough food produced to feed the entire population. However, due to food waste and inefficiencies, ~30% of total food production is lost -- enough to pull millions out hunger. If we were to reduce food production to eliminate waste, we would also reduce the amount of farmland needed to produce it. Farmland is detrimental to the environment causing biodiversity loss and CO2 emissions. The western world is partially to blame.
European supermarkets demand high produce cosmetic standards and sporadically change farm orders. These high cosmetic standards and the combination of lack of storage and refrigeration by low-tech farmers causes a great deal of food waste. In Kenya alone, some small farms waste 40% of what they produce for these supermarkets. Instead of throwing this food away it could be sold at lower prices locally to create economic gain for farmers and provide nourishment for the local community. US supermarkets only sell 90% of their food while restaurants and households waste 19%. At our current consumption patterns, we will need to increase food production by 50-100% by 2050 or 200-400% if we keep supplying the planet’s meat demands. This increase requires more farmland accelerating the damage we are doing to our environment.
Western countries also waste a lot of food by simply throwing it away. Food production subsidies, given by countries such as the US, make the cost of purchasing and wasting food inexpensive. As a result, people become blind to their unsustainable consumption habits. In an attempt to find a solution, one research project discovered that food waste awareness greatly decreased waste with no effect on food consumed or dollars spent. The UK believes their increased food waste awareness accounted for half of their 21% reduction in household food waste reduction in 2007. The western world must also reduce their food consumption. The average US citizen currently consumes 3,600 calories per day -- over 1,100 more than recommended. This excess consumption is not only causing a health epidemic in the US but further abusing our planet’s finite resources. A commitment from western countries is not only necessary but will set an example to rapidly developing countries.
Water is considered the key to life. Every being on Earth depends on it and it is in limited supply. As humans we have many uses for using water, from farming, to industry, to just taking a shower. Water is essentially the main fuel that drives society and we as a species are not doing a good job at managing that fuel.
Most water on Earth is used for agriculture. Only 20% of total consumption is used for industry and an additional 10% for municipal use. Yes, your long showers may not be using up as much water as you thought. Flood irrigation is where most of agricultural water waste occurs. Fields are drenched in water and the excess can end up in streams are rivers or evaporate off. Even more is wasted when we grow water intensive crops like cotton, or walnuts in arid places.
Overall, the world consumes about 4 trillion cubic meters of water per year. Assuming an equal usage of water, this previously mentioned figure equates to about 60 cubic meters, roughly equivalent to 60,000 liters per person. It is important to note, however, that the water allotment is not equal. Of the total consumption, 70% is used for agriculture, highlighting the interconnectedness of consumption. This presents an area that can be reduced, allowing for the utilization of water in countries that desperately need it.
Americans waste about 500 gallons a year because they forget to shut off their faucet. If we can reduce water wastes, average water consumption can be 45,000 liters per person, a number that is still fairly large and also allows for a sustainable future. The drop from 60 to 45 cubic meters is definitely an achievable goal, given that we as a society can unify behind the idea of water conservation. This shift of limiting waste of water will also allow people in developing countries their fair share of the Earth’s water. If the whole world were to consume what the United States does today then we would require four and a half Earths to sustain ourselves. Striving for excellent living conditions should be a goal but needs to be attained in a sustainable manner. With proper consumption targets, increased efficiencies, and technological development we can make a significant progress towards this without needing to completely give up current lifestyles. It will will be difficult, but not impossible.