A recent article (1) by evolutionary psychologist Dr Val Curtis highlighted four basic reasons why we consume (the examples are hers):
- to meet basic needs (food, fuel, transport)
- to hoard (shoes, wine, stamps)
- to stimulate ourselves (cheesecake, gorgeous clothes)
- to display status (fashion, big car, big house).
Dr Curtis explains that these drives evolved to help our ancestors want things that were good for us, in a world of scarcity, giving them more surviving children than people who didn't want to consume more than they needed. She argues that our challenge in 2012 is to admit that our all-consuming habits are a problem we need to address.
My interest is in making everyday living more sustainable. This is essential for two reasons. Firstly, because our resources are finite and exponentially increasing consumption will collide with limits to growth (2). Second, the waste products from our production and consumption are polluting the air, land and seas to an extent that is overwhelming life on earth. Sir David Attenborough (3) has responded to the accusation that his recent “Frozen Planet” series was alarmist, saying, “The most extreme statement that I make is that a rising sea level that keeps rising – and it looks as though it could well do – will flood some of the greatest cities in the world, including London. It is an accurate statement and not an exaggerated one."
The signs of warming are only too obvious around us, month by month and year on year. It really is beyond reasonable doubt that our climate is changing, in unprecedented ways. My daughter was born in 1995 and she will soon be 17: all the data sets of global temperature observations concur that she has lived through the 16 warmest years in our planet's recorded history (4, 5).
So what is the connection between why we consume, the changing climate and our warming world? The answer to this question has been hotly contested but an incredibly robust scientific consensus has established that manmade greenhouse gas emissions, a waste product from human consumption, are changing the earth's energy balance and pushing our climate away from the stable equilibrium that has persisted throughout the evolution of our species.
The principal manmade greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide and we are emitting this at an ever-increasing rate that dwarfs natural emissions from, for example, volcanic activity. When we are told that global emissions of CO2 from our energy use totalled 33.6 Gigatonnes in 2010 (6), it is difficult to conjure up a meaningful picture of this amount of gas. How big is the atmosphere? What does a tonne of gas look like?
Instead, consider the FLOW of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere from our power stations, chimneys and exhaust pipes. Each tonne of gas occupies 557 cubic metres, at sea level (7). We are pumping 1000 tonnes of CO2 every second into the sky. This works out at a flow rate of more than 2 cubic kilometres an hour. To put that number into some kind of perspective, the volume of fresh water flowing down all of earth's rivers is just over 4.5 cubic kilometres an hour. So now we can see the sheer scale of our combustion of fossil fuels.
Carbon that was locked away underground over tens of millions of years is being released – by our consuming habits - at an extraordinary rate. This is happening in the blink of an eye, on geological timescales, and its effect on our climate in the coming decades is very likely to escalate. The most rapid warming is taking place at the Poles and this is likely to trigger even larger releases of another greenhouse gas, methane, that has been frozen beneath the Arctic Ocean and in the permafrost of Siberia and Canada since before humans first ventured to those inhospitable climes. This chain of events is called positive feedback and it is expected to lead to irreversible tipping points of runaway climate change, sea level rise and the loss of much of the rich diversity of life that exists in temperate and tropical regions of earth.
What are we to do about this apocalyptic vision? How can we bequeath our children's children a world worth living in? I am in no doubt that the direction set by Centrica, and British Gas, is the only solution to the crisis that faces life on earth at the start of the third millennium. These two companies, working at the heart of Britain's energy industry, tell us that they are “looking after your world”. Their central strategy for this is to lead Britain to a low carbon future. Along with Government and the rest of the energy industry, these companies are building the assets to generate energy from renewable resources like sun and wind and, in future, tide and marine currents. The investment needed to do this is enormous but, crucially, the fuel is free. Along with nuclear power and the fabled concept of carbon capture and storage (CCS), these assets are the core of Britain's plan, enshrined in law in the 2008 Climate Change Act, to cut its carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels, by 2050.
The economy requires us to consume but, as consumers, we must make informed choices about how we live our lives. By having regard for the ethical and environmental impact of the goods and services we buy, and the companies we buy them from, we are helping people escape from poverty, preventing the unnecessary suffering of animals and protecting the habitats that shelter the richest diversity of life on land and sea, such as rainforests and reefs.
Our whole society is built on the availability of energy, where and when we want it, at the flick of a switch or the turn of a key. Our energy supply is so reliable that we take it for granted, but we are so dependent upon it that our cities stop functioning in a power cut and our food and travel are rapidly interrupted by transport fuel shortages.
There are two essential ways for each of us to consume energy sustainably. The first, covered at length here, is to buy it from suppliers who are committed to decarbonising their supply. The second, covered in my “cut your carbon” blog (8) and elsewhere, is to take care to use it wisely. This means preventing wasted energy, by insulating our homes properly and, when it's time to replace lights, kitchen appliances, hi-fi and computers, looking around to find the most energy-efficient appliances we can afford.
In the past five years, my family have halved the amount of electricity and gas we use in our home. In 2012, I hope you will choose to set out on the same journey, looking after your world.
This guest blog was written by Peter Archibald from Sustainable Windsor. You can contact Peter at email@example.com.