My grandmother passed away a few years ago. She had few possessions: only one suitcase full of clothes and a cabinet of dishes.
I thought about how many possessions I had and came to the shocking realization that all my stuff would fill at least five large suitcases. That is when I thought: How many things do I actually use on a daily basis from all the stuff I have? I struggled to think of more than ten items, yet my home is filled to the brim with all kinds of paraphernalia. I felt rather disturbed and guilty when I realized I’ve been hoarding so much stuff for all these years without actually using it.
If just one person among the billions on Earth has enough stuff to fill several suitcases, what about the rest of the world? We now have more than 7 billion people on Earth — growing by about 75 million per year; there are more mouths to feed, more people to house, and clothe than ever before. Demand is severely straining nature’s already limited resources. Our carbon footprint, which refers to our total greenhouse gas emissions, has shot up 11 times since 1961.
As a species, we are exterminating countless other species we share our planet with, many of which we didn’t even know existed. Over the last century, we have lost vertebrate species at a rate 100 times higher than the natural rate — and this is a conservative estimate. Sadly, the sixth “mass extinction” is already underway.
We are also living longer. A study I covered on my blog in 2013 found that countries with a high life expectancy were associated with more endangered and invasive species of birds and mammals. The reason, the authors postulated, was that as people live longer, they consume more resources — like food, water, and gas — and thus their carbon and ecological footprint is greater. Ecological footprint refers to how much area of biologically productive land and water an individual, population or activity requires to produce all the resources it consumes and to absorb the waste it generates.
If we look at the ecological footprint per person for each country compared with the biocapacity of the country per person we can get an idea of the how strained the environment is with respect to consumption levels. In 2011, the ecological footprint for the US ranked third highest in the world at 6.8 global hectares per person while its biocapacity was only 3.6 global hectares per person meaning Americans were consuming almost twice as much as their environment can provide. Using the global average biocapacity, which is 1.7 global hectares available per person, Americans were consuming four times more resources than their environment would provide. In other words, four Earth’s would be needed if everyone in the world lived the American lifestyle.
In comparison, China’s ecological footprint stood at 2.5 global hectares per person (global ranking at 62), which is almost three times higher than its biocapacity per person, and 1.5 times higher than the global average. India, which has a similar population to China, but three times smaller land area, had an ecological footprint of 0.9 global hectares per person (global ranking 128) — two times higher than its biocapacity but only half of the global average biocapacity.
One of the greatest paradoxes of our modern world is that we want to constantly raise economic growth because it is the standard measure of how well a country is doing. But our environment is inevitably destroyed in the process; chopping down trees to make more land available for industries and crops, extracting more raw materials from our Earth to produce all the stuff we consume, and drilling for more oil to meet our burgeoning energy demands are just some of the ways we plunder our Earth.
As humans, we mostly consume resources rather than provide any real benefit to nature. Nature doesn’t really need us, but we need nature. Excessive growth will eventually cause our own decline because our well-being is inextricably tied to the health of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Lured by the array of products on offer and slick advertising, people often get carried away into buying many more products than they actually need — most of which end up in a closet never to be seen again. As a teenager, I, like many others, succumbed to the excessively materialistic lifestyle that is prevalent in society. Shopping became a pastime, something that you do with your friends. The path towards materialism is sowed from childhood; children are swamped with all kinds of plastic toys and gadgets to play with.
And while consumers are now becoming more conscious of the products they are buying, and where they come from, few think about what happens to them when they reach the end of their life.
Do you know where your toothbrush comes from? How much energy went into producing it? Where will it end up after you trash it? How many toothbrushes have you used so far in your life?
Recall all the products you use in a day, from the moment you wake up, till the end of the day, and all the materials involved in manufacturing these products such as plastic, metal, and paper. Think about all the energy that goes into producing a single product from processing of the raw materials to assembling, packaging, and transportation to the store.
Throwing away these products without using them means that all the energy expended in producing them is wasted — that is, gone forever. Moreover, all products have a limited life, and disposal is another problem as much of the stuff we throw ends up in landfills.
I now realize all the stuff I bought or yearned to possess over my lifetime seem so trivial. Knowing how much energy was consumed in producing these things, I felt ever so guilty and vowed to myself that I won’t ever stash so much stuff again.
The rise of China’s upper class has led to an insatiable craving for “hongmu” or rosewood furniture, leading to swathes of forests being illegally cut down in Myanmar, Indonesia, and other South East Asian countries — even as far as Madagascar. China has yet to ban illegal wood imports as it wants access to cheap wood.
Land bulldozing and slash and burn farming for paper and palm oil plantations by companies and farmers is threatening the already endangered orangutan populations. Needless to say, many of the snacks we buy from our local supermarket contain palm oil. Alarmingly, more than half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by these fires. The haze generated from illegal forest fires in Indonesia, which continue to rage as I write, affects the entire South East Asia region causing respiratory diseases in thousands of people.
Acres of deforestation in Kuching, Malaysia, 2005. Image: Ben Sutherland/ Flickr
Our plastics are choking the oceans and over 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic at some point in their lifetime compared with less than 5% in the 1960s. Even sea turtles have not been spared. In a study last year, Qamar Schuyler, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Queensland, recovered large amounts of plastic debris from dead stranded sea turtles.
Debris recovered from the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum of a small turtle. Image: Courtesy of Qamar Schuyler
“A lot of the plastics that turtles are consuming are end-user items, such as packaging and food storage materials. We all need to be more responsible and aware of our choices and reduce the amount of these consumer items that end up in the waste stream,” said Schuyler.
Illegal poaching for elephant ivory has reached epic proportions: more than 100,000 African elephants were slaughtered from 2010 to 2012 — that’s around 91 elephants killed per day over three years. The driving force behind the massacre is demand from China and other parts of Asia, where ivory products are perceived as items of good luck and as status symbols. As consumers we need to ask ourselves: Do we really need ivory? Can we live a happy and fulfilling life without using ivory products?
Stockpile of ivory seizures, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Image: EIABlog
Even the noise generated by container ships — which transport many of the modern goods we use — makes young critically endangered European glass eels more stressed and less likely to fend off predators, according to a study I covered last year on my blog.
Living in Moderation
Climate change is very much in our control and this is where sustainable development comes in. Sustainable living and “going green” are buzzwords these days. While transitioning to renewable energy sources is a definitely a start, a long-term solution boils down to changing our consumption patterns, our habits, and our lifestyles.
Every choice we make to buy a commodity has an impact on our planet, from the quantity and type of products you use on a daily basis, to the materials that went into producing them.
So what does it mean to be sustainable? The art of sustainable living, as I call it, lies in embracing moderation and restraint in our lives. This means reducing our dependence on products and using fewer products to achieve our goals. If we can manage with fewer products this will lead to less waste. What we need to exercise is moderation in consumption.
Quality of life isn’t measured by how many possessions you own or how valuable they are. You can live a high quality and fulfilling life with few possessions; it is all about the choices we make. As children, my parents didn’t have many toys and yet they were content.
We have to transcend the appeal of possessing things and look into their value, their utility. How many times do we use a product until it reaches the end of its life cycle? For some, it is only once, while others can last several months to many years. For example, kids get bored of toys pretty quickly these days. Many toys are made of plastic and also contain hazardous metals. Sooner or later, they are dumped into landfills.
While all consumption is indirectly detrimental to our environment, we can reduce the impact by keeping a tight rein on our wants. Ideally, parents should instill the art of moderation in their children from a young age.
How can we lead a life that will have the least impact on the environment?
Whenever buying anything — from clothes, shoes, and bags, to books, electronic appliances, gadgets, and household items— I ask myself the following:
1. Do I really need this? Can I do without it?
2. How many times will I actually use it?
3. How long will it last?
4. What will I do with it once I’m done using it or once it has reached the end of its life cycle? (Think: can I recycle it? Can I donate it to someone who can use it? Is it just going to end up in the trash?)
I go through these questions in my mind rather than just looking at whether I like the product and the price. If we go through these questions we can try to eliminate purchases which weren’t really necessary in the first place.
The key is to buy only what you really need; resist the temptation to buy items just because they are on sale and think twice before buying something. If you will only use something once, after which it ends up in a closet or drawer never to be seen again, not only have you wasted your money, but no one else can use the product either. And if it cannot be used by anyone else, it becomes waste.
Don’t get me wrong here; I don’t mean to abstain from all purchases. Moderation is the key, just like we exercise restraint when eating rich or fatty foods. Of course, occasionally you will buy something that you have been planning to buy and will use for a long time.
You need to reflect on why you are buying something in the first place. Are you buying things to maintain a certain image, to please others, to make yourself happy or some other reason? If it is for personal pleasure, I have found that happiness doesn’t last long and when the euphoria wanes, you won’t know what to do with all the stuff you’ve accumulated. It’s a cycle: you are dying to buy a product, you spend all your energies to obtain it, you get bored of it, you chuck it away, and then you yearn for something else to satisfy yourself.
Like all living things, our bodies will one day return to the Earth. The indelible mark we will leave on Earth will be our carbon and ecological footprints.
Who had the lowest footprint and yet lived a fulfilling life? Wouldn’t it be so gratifying to look back in your final days on Earth knowing that your existence was not a large burden on our environment? And that you only consumed what you needed with the least amount of waste.
As for me, I haven’t bought much in the past few years — hardly any clothes, shoes, bags, etc — and I’m still working on reducing my stuff. I’ve managed to cut down one suitcase, but I still need to clear out a few more suitcases of clutter, after which I will feel so much lighter and free. I now realize that less is truly more.
I end with Mahatma Gandhi’s renowned quote, which I believe we all need to accept and act upon.
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.