Have you guys ever heard about the Little Ice Age? After Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1491, there was a surge in exploration activity, resulting in one of the earliest intercontinental human migrations from Europe to the Americas. The natives, who used to clear the forest regularly with fire and agriculture, were destroyed in swaths not by weapon but by 20 lethal diseases that accompanied the explorers. These diseases are now believed to have resulted in the death of about 95% of the natives that lived in North America, in what is now known as the ‘greatest demographic catastrophe in human history’. This resulted in a huge reforesting exercise that drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting in the Little Ice Age (1550-1800).
2015 has been a very hard year. Plunging oil prices has resulted in a brutal economic slowdown especially in my home province of Alberta, Canada, which is also home to one of the largest oil deposits outside Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The Canadian dollar has fallen and so has the purchasing power of many common people including myself. These days I get inundated with emails from various retailers trying to sell merchandise at basically rock bottom prices. Target has already closed shop and many stores including Future Shop has been dismantled. Shopping malls are literally empty with a sombre mood everywhere.
When I look back to those booming days, I could remember that there was a time when we simply brought stuff incessantly. Sometimes I get this lingering thought in the back of my mind as to why this consumerism that causes the subsequent materialism. Yes, these are indeed the fruits of capitalism. Advertising and marketing has reached an advanced level where it coerces us to queue in front of stores for hours, just to get hold of the latest electronic device; we are also ready to part with our personal information to software companies who makes windfall profits from them. One has to just look at the craze that accompanies Black Friday, Boxing Day or those flash sales that happen every now and then. Every day of the year is being commemorated for something and we just buy, buy and buy to gift someone or even ourselves. I still remember an old acquaintance that actually had to buy a bigger house because his small house became filled with stuff as he was simply addicted to shopping. Do you remember those home renovation series on HGTV where the presenters plead with the people to get rid of what they do not need before purchasing anything, most of the time to deaf ears ?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report (AR5) released in 2014 reported that the scientists were more than 95% certain that most of the global warming is caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human activities. The United Nations framework of climate change mentions that deep cuts in emissions are required and future global warming must be limited to below 2C, relative to pre-industrial level. In a paper written by the Worldwatch Institute in its annual report, State of the World 2004, unsustainable over-consumption which till recently was associated with developed countries is now widely prevalent in developing countries. The report had these words to talk about the rising ‘consumer class’ of the world which is at least 30% of the world’s population and are mostly concentrated in the developing countries:
“Consumer class”—the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.
Is consumption bad? No. It had helped initially to meet the basic demands for proper living standards and creating jobs. But the over consumption due to an aggressive consumerism has resulted in challenging the basic natural systems that we depend on such as air, water and not to mention its devastating toll on ecosystems, natural resources etc. It has also made it harder for the world’s poor to even meet their basic needs. Rapid globalisation has ensured that what was once considered, as a luxury is now a necessity in many of the developing countries. The whole debate on climate change has been cleverly manipulated by the western powers to poke the developing countries to reduce their emissions, slow down economic progress and subsequent consumption. Little do they realise that all these are a consequence of their lifestyle and subsequent materialism. William Rees a professor at the University of British Columbia mentions that the current economic paradigm, which is based on increasing human population, economic development and standard of living, is no longer compatible with the biophysical limits of the finite earth.
Materialism is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “way of thinking that gives too much importance to material possessions rather than to spiritual or intellectual things. In North America, it is widely believed that materialism is important to pursue the good life. It has been documented that from 1970-1990s, the percentage of people who actually believed that attending college or further education to obtain financial gain increased from 40-75%. Today that number may be higher.
I wouldn’t say that it is bad to be rich or prosperous, but with increasing wealth, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we need to have a balance with respect to our consumption patterns. We cannot keep buying clothes that we do not wear, food that we do not eat and throw away, electronic items with incremental changes without recycling what we already have, incessant shopping of materials that we do not need. We need to understand that every commodity that we purchase has a human value to it and also an environmental value to it. An iPhone uses all sorts of materials from glass, silicon (semiconductors), lithium (batteries) etc. most of which are sourced from mining. These do have an adverse effect on the environment.
I do not want to sound as a hypocrite here. I am a big consumer of electronics and am equally responsible for many of the cardinal sins that are mentioned in this post. In the beginning of this post I mentioned how we had a Little Ice Age when diseases killed millions of American natives. Today the debate on climate change centers on reducing the warming temperatures to less than 2C. With an increasing global population tipped to be 9 billion by 2040, the only leverage that you and me has in our hands today is adjust our consumption accordingly to what we actually need and not what we want. Only then can we leave an earth for our future generation to call as home.
“I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” Emile Gauvreau