Almost all scientists agree that the global temperature is rising and that human activity is the cause. You might accept their conclusion, but if you are like most people, you are not sure how to be part of the solution without giving up your lifestyle. Perhaps you have seen one of the many lists of tips on ways to be more environmentally responsible that include items like buying fancy expensive light bulbs. This not a list of tips. Instead, I’ll offer a way to think about your purchase decisions that can automatically shrink your consumption of the earth’s finite resources.
Whether made of plastic, metal or a combination of materials, every product you buy was produced through the consumption of energy. This is usually called embodied energy. Energy is consumed in the production or refining of the raw materials, the manufacturing of the product, its packaging and shipping and so on. Energy is embodied in a new car or in a cheap plastic trinket made in Asia.
We know that the largest source of greenhouse gases is the use of fossil fuels because they are carbon-based and when burned, they release carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. And since fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of global energy supply, you could almost say that every product you buy, and the price you pay, is mostly embodied fossil fuels. That includes everything from an airline ticket to a head of lettuce. In general, the higher its price, the more embodied energy.
So when you lay down cash or swipe your credit card, what you are really spending is fossil fuels. The more you spend, the greater your carbon footprint. Wealthy people have huge carbon footprints compared to the rest of us, what with multiple houses and cars, and frequent world travel in airplanes.
Durable products like houses and furniture have lower life-cycle carbon footprints than so-called consumer goods, which tend to have short useful lifespans. When you buy gasoline or diesel for your vehicle you are buying a pure fossil fuel that will quickly be converted to carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Speaking of vehicles, big heavy ones with big engines have more embodied energy and consume more fossil fuels when used than smaller, lighter vehicles. It is sad to hear people say that big vehicles are desirable because they offer more protection for their family in a crash, not realizing that their children will have to live with the environmental results of that kind of excessive consumption of everything.
We all live in a consumer society in which the typical consumer focuses mostly on ‘getting the best price’, rather than environmental consequences. But, after 40 years in the energy business, I view every dollar I spend as an expenditure of fossil fuel and a contribution to global warming. I can’t help myself. This mindset tends to make a person frugal about every purchase and possibly annoying at parties.
There are those who will say that reining in our gluttonous consumption patterns would slow down economic growth. But as American author and essayist Edward Abby wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” And Kenneth Boulding, himself an economist, wrote “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
If everyone viewed their expenditures as contributing to climate change, the economy would certainly slow down. We would end up with a different economy, one that wouldn’t have us racing headlong into a bleak future for our children.
Dr. Steve Taylor, author of The Madness of Materialism, writes, “The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days.”
What if people followed the advice of British author and journalist Jeremy Seabrook that “people should declare themselves satisfied with what they have”? One result could be a healthier planet.
Do you have the courage to declare yourself satisfied?
About the author: John Gulland worked for a major wood burning appliance manufacturer starting in 1978, serving as the product development manager. He became a consultant in the field in 1981. While maintaining his consulting business, he opened a highly successful hearth store in Killaloe in 1985, which he sold to its manager in 1992. Throughout his consulting career he worked on many projects, but the largest was serving as the lead researcher and writer of the Wood Energy Technical Training (WETT) reference manual and series of ten courses for wood heating professionals.
Thanks for this great article. I am satisfied with what I have, except my car burns too much fossil fuel! I have more than enough stuff. At both the individual and collective level, we are addicted to consumerism – the craving to meet our physical, psychological, and spiritual needs via shopping and consumption. This constant craving is the source of much suffering. Like other addictions, it’s complicated to address.