According to the UN Population Fund, there will be 7 billion people on Earth as of October 31, 2011. That’s 7,000,000,000 mouths that need to be fed, bodies that need shelter and medical care, brains that need an education. Are we and our planet up for the challenge?
It’s no secret that many in our world don’t even have their basic needs met and are dying from preventable diseases and malnutrition. The causes of extreme poverty are complex. The solutions are varied. One of the ways to alleviate this human suffering is for those of us who are in more fortunate situations to reduce consumption and to consume more consciously. Over consumption by people in developed nations have led to climate change, pollution, and resource depletion. The people who bear the brunt of environmental distress are the very poorest, those with the fewest resources to cope.
Yes, the sheer number of people on the planet is certainly part of the issue. Population size does matter. But I believe that over consumption is an even bigger threat to the earth. In 2008 renown scientist Jared Diamond wrote in The New York Times that people in developed countries use 32 times as much resources and generate 32 times as much waste as a person in a developing country. Hence it’s a mistake to place all the blame on those who have more babies.
We all share this planet. We depend on it for our very existence. It’s not wrong to use resources. In fact, some people actually need to consume more: more healthy food, more education, more medical care. But over consumption is harmful to ourselves, to the planet, and to other living beings we share the earth with. We need to moderate our consumption so that there is more to go around and a chance for natural resources to renew themselves. For those of us who have our essential needs met, our responsibility is to be a conscious consumer.
The first key is to simply use less. All the things in our lives from food to clothes to computers come from the earth. Even man made material are derived from something that’s found in nature. Our planet is incredibly abundant and giving. But it cannot provide indefinitely in the face of strip mining, deforestation, and over fishing of the oceans. Through consuming less and valuing what we already have, we honor the earth and we respect the need of other people, other species and future generations to survive.
There are probably as many ways to conserve as there are people. Fortunately, conservation not only protects the natural world but usually saves you money at the same time. Here are some super easy conservation strategies to help you get started:
- wash only full loads of dishes and laundry
- turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth or soaping up in the shower
- re-purpose old towels as rags, paper that’s printed only on one side as scratch paper, empty boxes and jars as organizing containers
- use less than the recommended amount of toothpaste, shampoo, detergent, etc. I do this myself and found no difference in the result.
- choose to walk or bike rather than drive whenever possible.
The second key is to purchase responsibly when you do buy. That means being aware of where things come from, how they are made, and their health and environmental impact . Everything we bring into our lives influences not just our well-being but the health of other people and the planet.
Fortunately these concerns are no longer fringe interests. Much research has gone into the health and sustainability of consumer goods and this data is widely available. See below for some suggested resources to help you make better informed purchasing decisions. In any case, I suggest the following 3 questions to ask yourself to help you buy consciously:
1. Do I really need to buy this? Can I borrow it from someone or use something I already have? For instance, if you go camping only once a year, rather than buying a tent, you could borrow one from a friend.
2. If I do need to own it, can I get it used or is there a healthier option (for you and for the environment)? For instance, rather than buying a gas powered lawn mower, you could get a push mower instead.
3. What happens to this item when I no longer want it? Can it be re-purposed, given to someone else, recycled, or must it be trashed?
In our world, the gap between the haves and the have nots are growing bigger every day. Granted there are many factors that contribute to inequality. But over consumption of resources is one factor that we can all do something about immediately. By being a conscious consumer, we help bridge that gap to bring sufficiency for everyone. Regardless of whether or not we’re ready for 7 billion people, that’s what we’re getting. Let’s make it work for everyone.
Environmental Working Group – lots of data and research on chemicals and toxins in every day products and foods.
The Good Guide – provides information on health, environmental, and social impact of consumer goods.
Consumer Reports – assists you in purchasing quality, durable goods.