Sustainability and Consumption


Two hundred years ago the human population was about one billion.  It
has now reached 6.4 billion and is expected to increase to 9 - 10
billion.  The annual animal and plant foods needs to feed this human
population are in the billions of tonnes per year. In addition, humans
have huge material needs and wants and now manage the planet for these
needs and wants. Can we maintain this level of interdependent existence
of humans, animals and plants, and for how long?

Limitations were recognized by the World Commission on Environment and
Development  (Brundtland Report, see reference 1)  when, in 1987, it
ushered in the goal of "sustainable development" as "development that
meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the need
of future generations." The emphasis was on need not want of the human
population. "The world provides enough to satisfy everyman's need but
not enough for everyman's greed (Gandhi)."

The Brundtland Report marked the beginning of a striving to apply
activities towards sustainable processes at all levels of human society.
 Consequently, we now have a plethora of imagined processes and
activities, including: sustainable agriculture, sustainable environment,
sustainability science, sustainability knowledge, sustainablility
education, sustainability challenges, sustainable consumption,
sustainable use, financial sustainability, Sustainable Resource
Development departments, sustainable practices, sustainability
committees, sustainable water resources, sustainable prosperity,
sustainable future, sustainability plans, etc.  Sustainable has become a
politically correct word and it is applied in many inappropriate
contexts. It is applied irrationally and arbitrarily, and in consequence
has lost its original meaning of the Brundtland Report. Do we still know
what it means?

In German the phrase Sustainable Development originated from the
forestry profession "cut trees only as fast as they will grow."  Humans
on the Easter Islands cut trees faster than they could grow and their
society collapsed brutally into starvation and tribal war.  How much
land area was required per unit human?  This would have depended on the
productivity of the land, the needs and wants by the humans.  The Easter
Islander society may have sustained itself to this day had it been
considered of the limits of the resources of the Islands.
Unfortunately, humans are presently engaged in extending the failed
Easter Island experience to a global level.

The consumption disparity on the globe is enormous.  We have created a
world in which 20% of us control 80% of the resources and 80% of us have
to make do with the rest.  The greedy ones among us use the planet as if
it's resources were without limits. The authors live in Lethbridge,
Alberta, but the materials and food we use come from all over the
planet.  Our ecological footprint is measured in 5 - 8 hectares (for
Vancouver) whereas in Somalia it is only 0.4 hectares per person (see
Rees and Wackernagel and Rees references). With increasing world
population the amount of productive land available per person on this
globe can only go down.  The growing world population has already
reduced the available productive land base to 1.8 hectars per person.
We in Lethbridge need to change our lifestyle and consumption behaviour
to reduce our ecological footprint to1.8 hectares per person. Our
consumption level if applied by all humans would require additional
globes. We have to free ourselves from the second car, improve home
insulation, buy locally produced products, reduce our travel distances
and use more public transport as well as our bicycle.  The lifestyle of
people with excessive consumption is not sustainable to future

What level of consumption is sustainable?  Does reference to "future
generations" imply the protection of the human environment only? Our
present and future needs are founded in the health of the natural
environment, which implies consumption with consideration of other
species.  The definition and maintenance of the health of ecosystems is
a scientific and social exercise filled with uncertainty. Nevertheless,
decision makers are frequently in a position to make political decisions
in the face of uncertainty.  Such decisions have frequently led to over-
exploitation of renewable resources.  What level of resource, land, air
and water use is permissible for the prevailing conditions?  We know
that the present level of consumption of resources is already too high.
Can we predict the needs of the forthcoming nine billion population?
What level of consumption is permissible if we include future
generations in our plans and wants? How quickly must we mend our wanton
ways?  Do we have a choice but to err on the side of caution?

Meeting fundamental human needs while preserving the life-support
systems of planet Earth should be the essence of sustainable
consumption.  The development of human society is based in science and
its consequent application to technology inviting unfettered
consumption.  The present and future populations of humans and other
species is put at peril by the prevailing level of consumption.  To
control these unintended consequences of science, participatory
procedures involving scientists, stakeholders, advocates, and
enlightened citizens are critically needed.  Our application of science
has brought us to this unsustainable situation, and, ironically, it is
this same scientific process and its holistic application that can lead
us to a secure future. We need key scientific disciplines to engage
interactively for the actual attainment of sustainability.

Sustainable consumption requires the revision of our consumption
patterns and our economic management.  We need to abandon Gross National
Product as an indicator of our well being. It is a measure of reckless
consumption of limited resources without long-term considerations and
thus a measure of our demise. We must ensure that prices reflect all
environmental and social costs, and that subsidies do not support
harmful practices. We need to recognize the ecological perils created by
our collective consumption.  We have to distinguish wants from needs and
make wants significantly more expensive.


To refer to a process as "sustainable" it is essential to have it's
beginning and end clearly defined. Without the definition of the process
we do not know the significance of actions that relate to the
sustainability of that process.  To make a process sustainable requires
numerous actions all aimed towards this goal.  A particular action
should only be referred to work "towards" a sustainable process.
Actions themselves should not be referred to as sustainable.  However,
if actions are applied correctly and collectively they may make a
process sustainable.  We have to become smarter, and urgently so, in
making processes sustainable.

Reference material used in the above:
World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future
(Oxford Uni. Press, Oxford,1987, page 393
Clarke, T. (2002) Wanted: scientists for sustainability. Nature, 22
August, page 812
Kates, R. et al (2001) Sustainability science. Science, 27 April, page
Maddox, J. (2000) Positioning the goalposts. Nature, 13 January, page
Maddox, J. (1995) Sustainable development unsustainable. Nature, 23
March, page 305
McMichael, A.J. et al ((2003) New visions for addressing
sustainability. Science, 12 December, page 1919
Myers, N. (2000) Sustainable consumption. Science, 31 March, page 2419
Pauly, D. et al ((2002) Towards sustainablility in world fisheries.
Nature, 8 August, page 689
Rees, W. and Wackernagel, M.
Rees, W. (2006) Vancouver Courier, September 27
Rosenberg, A.A. et al (1993) Achieving sustainable use of renewable
resources. Science, 5 November, page 828
Sachs, J.D. (2006) Ecology and political upheaval. Scientific American,
September, page 37
Tilman, D. et al (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive
production practices. Nature, 8 August, page 671
Tingley D. (1992) Defining Sustainable Development. Wilderness Alberta,
Wackernagel, M and Rees W. (1996) Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing
human impact on the earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC

Klaus Jericho and Don Ferguson
Southern Alberta Group for the Environment
Lethbridge, Alberta

September, 2007