Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Most people know that China’s industry generates more carbon emissions than any other country. It’s no surprise that some parts nation have to endure some serious issues with smog and air pollution. But in order to see what’s really driving the impact on the planet, you need to look past the obvious factors that are taking a toll on the environment. Sure, industry and agriculture contribute a large part to the issue, but most of these things are necessary for the smooth function of the world.
To put things in perspective, researchers say that household consumers like us are the biggest drain on the environment. This is very different from the nation based analysis of the environmental impact that most people are accustomed to seeing. In other words, we should probably be looking at our own consumer habits before blaming a country as a whole.
“If you look at China’s per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small,” says Diana Ivanova, a Ph.D. candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme. This may be hard to believe at first considering the number of products produced in China, but they export a majority of those products to other countries. It’s different if you put the blame on the consumers rather than the producers.
Ivanova and her colleagues’ analysis of environmental impact from a consumer perspective in 43 different countries and 5 rest-of-the-world regions let them see that consumers are directly responsible for 20 percent of all carbon impacts, which result from when people drive their cars and heat their homes.
Necessities or Luxuries?
So many items that were considered luxuries a couple of decades ago are now considered necessities. TVs. Laptops. Cellphones. All of these appliances play a role in feeding consumerism. Nowadays, you can’t turn on your phone without being bombarded with millions of advertisements. With social media platforms like Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat it is a whole lot easier for companies to reach prospective customers. Every company wants you to be their customer. It is no wonder that America consists of the world’s largest hyper consumers. With the pressure on consumers to keep buying the latest item, it becomes tough to draw a line between what is considered a necessity versus a luxury.
Just 40 years ago almost no one in China had private cars. By 2000, 5 million cars moved people and goods; the number is expected to reach 24 million by the end of next year. Meanwhile, in the United States, there are more cars on the road than licensed drivers. As our reliance on Automobiles increases so does pollution, traffic, and the burning of fossil fuels. Cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption.
Another essential part of life that had changed immensely in the past years is diet. In recent times the growing emphasis on meat, but to illustrates the environmental and societal toll exacted by unbridled consumption.
To meet demand, the livestock industry had to change and become more like a factory production. If you look at the big picture, Producing eight ounces of beef requires 6,600 gallons (25,000 liters) of water; 95 percent of world soybean crops are consumed by farm animals, and 16 percent of the world's methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, is produced by belching, flatulent livestock.
This new lifestyle has proved to be destructive and cruel to both animals and the environment alike.
Spending = Happiness?
Most people buy new things in an attempt to feel happiness or fit in with everyone else. But studies prove that’s not the case. Findings from a survey of life satisfaction in more than 65 countries indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person (in 1995 dollars). After that, additional income appears to produce only modest increments in self-reported happiness.
In reality consuming does not make us happier or healthier. Consumerism is so interbred into everyday life that it is almost impossible to not fall in the trap and it’s the environment and your wallet who suffer.
Naomi Klein delineates in her book This Changes Everything,
“We have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, while failing to place value on those things that most of us cherish above all — a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with one another.”
Consuming less won’t single-handedly solve climate change and save the Earth. But it can change perspectives and allow people to change their lifestyles. If we as a species change our lifestyle to be more minimalist, eventually companies and the economy will have to follow our lead and change to a more sustainable system.
Consumerism is not just bad for the environment it is equally as bad for us. People are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle, consequently spending less time with family, friends, and community organizations. Soaring rates of heart disease and diabetes, surging health care costs, and a lower quality of day-to-day life are the result of consumerism.