Consumption, Factor of the Environmental Crisis

This work describes the various anthropic factors that generate negative environmental impact, both individually and in their interrelation. It then focuses on consumption, as a factor of maximum relevance, and proposes an alternative model of global reduction of consumption with income redistribution.

The Decrease in Consumption as a Synergistic Factor in the Reversal of the Environmental Crisis

1. Introduction

If we were to ask ourselves about the magnitude and scope of the environmental crisis, we could propose three conceptual categories to frame a possible answer:

a) The crisis is disruptive to life, worsening the conditions of large populations, but without threatening the continuity of the human species as a whole.
b) The crisis deeply disturbs the planetary ecosystem, which will, however, be capable of reestablishing its homeostasis, although its new state of balance will exclude the human species.
c) The crisis will end up completely destroying the planetary ecosystem, turning the Earth into a desert planet, devoid of life, as it is defined today.

Options b and c are highly distressing, but "a" is still worrying, because when it is said "worsening the conditions of large populations", even if the human species as a whole subsists, many people will suffer, get sick, and die.
It is appropriate to remember that the United Nations Population Fund anticipated, several years ago, some eight hundred million environmental refugees, only in the first decades of the 1st century (XNUMX)

Although certainly the magnitude and complexity of the question raised means that no one is in a position to give an exhaustive answer, it is interesting to take into account a study carried out by Stanford University, which indicates that our species is currently using, either directly or indirectly, 25% of the "Net Primary Product", that is, of all the energy available for any species that is not capable of photosynthesis (exoenergy). (2)

This implies that, as a theoretical limit, only two more doublings of human activity are possible, which at the current rate of growth in resource use would be achieved in two or three generations. Obviously, this is a theoretical limit, since long before that, the global ecosystem would collapse, due to strangulation of trophic chains in the context of decreasing biodiversity.

Another interesting fact is that, from a perspective of resource depletion, today, if the consumption values ​​of materially developed countries (normally known as simply developed, an adjectival to which we do not subscribe) were extrapolated to the entire world population , many of these resources would disappear in a very short time. Thus, the United States of America, with less than 5% of the world's population, consumes 33% of the planet's copper. If we all consumed copper at that level, it would take about 7 planet Earths to provide that metal.(3)

There are two considerations to take into account in relation to environmental problems:

1) Most indicators of environmental deterioration grow exponentially, that is, accelerated. The amount of garbage produced, the desertified surface or the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to name just a few examples, have been following this law. To understand intuitively how an exponential function operates, the example of the pond (4) is appropriate. An aquatic plant floats in a pond. The surface of the pond is such that it takes a million of those to completely cover it. The plant reproduces, doubling its population daily. A simple calculation shows that it takes only twenty days to cover the pond, that is, to exceed one million (2 exp 20 = 1)

But the interesting thing about the example is that if an unsuspecting observer passed by our scene on the 19th, upon seeing the pond half covered, half empty, he could mistakenly think that there are still, if not another 19, then at least several more days to go. cover it.

Many of the environmental problems, which have been increasing steadily in recent decades, could today be in a kind of "day nineteen", that is, on the verge of reaching saturation, or critical threshold.

It is enough to consider, as a final indicator of environmental deterioration, that at the beginning of the 1950th century, one species was lost annually: in 1975, about six, in 1990, four hundred, in 2000, about eight thousand, and in 5, fifty thousand species per year (XNUMX )

2)The second consideration is that environmental problems cannot be considered in isolation, since they are interrelated in a complex causal network, in which feedback loops appear.

In that sense, the classic approach used within the mechanistic, linear and fragmentary hegemonic development model is inadequate to address environmental problems.
For example, the release of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, is responsible for global warming.

On the other hand, the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is the destruction of stratospheric ozone.

Up to this point, both problems appear separate.

However, CFCs are themselves powerful thermoactives, also contributing to global warming.

But in addition, the destruction of O3 increases the passage of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This greater incidence of UV radiation is affecting and modifying phytoplankton populations, reducing the dioxide absorption capacity of the oceans. Here is a first link between ozone destruction and the greenhouse effect.

Let's consider another greenhouse gas, methane (CH4). If, as predicted, the greenhouse effect is beginning to cause the melting of continental ice (6), these ices would release methane trapped in them as they liquefy, feedbacking the process (7).

In turn, the rise in sea level would imply the destruction of arable coastal strips, promoting the felling of eventually young and carbon-fixing forests (8) and thus reducing another terrestrial system for CO2 reabsorption.

There are many ties and links between "diverse" environmental problems, including their connections with social and cultural problems, such as the increase in poverty, migration to cities or transculturation.

These two considerations mean that we must review the approaches, generally fragmentary and incomplete, that can be made to make forecasts in relation to the environmental issue.

Although we do not have exhaustive proof (in many epistemic frameworks such proof simply does not exist), there is sufficient evidence to apply the precautionary principle and, assuming that the maximum severity of the crisis is highly probable, to act vigorously and immediately as if we were certain. .
In other words, it is not necessary to "prove" the proximity of the extreme of death and total disintegration of the planetary superorganism, -to use a "Gaian" concept (9)- to begin to act.

But this action must be directed at the generative dynamics of the negative environmental impact, and not merely at the symptoms.

This will most likely lead to a deep but necessary questioning of the hegemonic development model, of a clearly economistic nature.

2. Anthropic Factors of Environmental Deterioration

The global negative environmental impact (AI(-)) of anthropic origin can be considered as a product of the human population, due to the average consumption per capita, due to a factor linked to the technologies under which the various goods and services are produced and consumed. services.
Additionally, a concentration factor can be added, which reflects the fact that, equal to the previous three factors, the impact will be greater the more concentrated the source. In other words, a distributed impact generation will be more easily assimilated by the planetary ecosystem.

IA (-) = P x C x Ft x Fc

Where P is the world population, C the average per capita consumption, Ft the technology factor, and Fc the concentration factor.

The population factor P has long been considered, from a Malthusian perspective, the most worrying. It is, however, delimitable and comparatively little weight in comparison with C and Ft.
Taking into account that the average projection for world population growth foresees its stabilization at around double the current figure, it is understood that it would be enough to reduce the C x Ft product by half, to maintain IA(-) within the current value.

The perspectives that present the environmental problem as a product of the rapid population growth of the countries of the "southern" (10) and in particular of poverty, are much more likely to be the result of fear - with a certain xenophobic edge - of certain sectors of the "north". to lose their perks because of an indigent invading mass, rather than rationality.

It is enough to understand this that, although nine out of ten children are born today in the "south", the child born in the "north" will be destined to consume and contaminate as many as twenty-seven southern children, that is, three times as many as the nine on the whole.

Various indicators show that the environmental problem has spread much more due to the intensification of consumption than due to population growth. An example of this is the data for garbage generation in the City of Buenos Aires and surrounding areas, which since 1978 has increased by 168% while the population has only increased by 35%. (eleven)

The Ft technology factor is by far the one that has most occupied the discourse of specialists, in their attempt to alleviate the crisis, and this year has been no exception.

We are going to examine its reduction potential from a theoretical perspective, that is, exclusively technical, to then see what its horizon is in the real socio-economic context proposed by the hegemonic model.

Virtually all tangible human activities that are necessary for a noble purpose of our collective existence can be carried out through the use of Appropriate Technologies (AT).

TA is understood here as any technology that, applied at some point in the production, distribution, consumption or disposal process of various goods and services, allows the same provision or final use to be achieved, with less negative environmental impact.

Habitat design and spatial planning, both rural and urban, can be organized in ways compatible with ecosystem balance.

Housing, through healthy construction standards, the use of indigenous construction materials appropriate to the local climate, and bioenvironmental architecture (12), can become a place not only healthy for life but also harmonious with the surrounding ecosystem and energetically. efficient.

Agriculture can become sustainable and feedback to biological diversity, eliminating the use of agrochemicals and promoting polyculture and organic production instead.

Vegetarianism as a dietary modality, beyond the direct impact on human health supported by its defenders, is, from an ecological perspective, a more appropriate way to use the land, since it is demonstrable that the calories that reach the tables produced per unit of surface area cultivated with vegetables for human consumption are about ten times more than those produced by meat from the same area intended for feeding livestock.
Transportation can be completely redesigned, -Curitiba is an example of this- (13).
The replacement of the most polluting forms of locomotion - such as combustion engines - with those that are less polluting - such as electric transport, as long as said electricity has not in turn been caused by the combustion of hydrocarbons -, the promotion of transport Public services that displace under-occupied cars or the promotion of cycling in decongested and safe cities are some of the available alternatives.

From the point of view of energy production and consumption, the possibilities are immense: on the one hand, energy efficiency measures make it possible to obtain the same services with much less energy consumption, through more efficient appliances such as compact lights, refrigerators, low consumption, high performance machines and equipment. On the other hand, these efficiency measures are complemented by the development and application of clean and renewable energies in generation: thermal and photovoltaic applications of solar energy, wind power generation, micro-hydraulic and tidal energy, biogas replacing field gas , and other technologies with varying degrees of development, without forgetting the immense potential of hydrogen as a fuel, all of them allowing the replacement of an energy model focused on scarce and polluting hydrocarbons, in the very dangerous nuclear power plants or in the environmentally disturbing mega hydroelectric power plants.

The minimization of waste, its reuse and recycling are important, or the manufacturing of objects with environmental criteria, that is, reversing the current economic criterion of producing for a useful life that maximizes the producer's profit based on a rapid cycle of discard and replacement of the product, regardless of the lower environmental impact for the same performance, are powerful technological resources.

Likewise, eco-labeling and environmental certifications (14), such as the environmental impact assessment of industrial processes and the treatment of waste streams (15), influence in the same direction.

What is the specific potential for AI (-) decrease through Ft decrease?

Let us consider, as an example, the energy problem. A bioclimatically efficient home could provide the same level of comfort as a conventional one, with only 25% of the energy consumption.

Low-consumption lighting fixtures allow the same lighting result as normal ones, with 20% of the latter's consumption.

An efficient refrigerator consumes 1/3 to 1/5 of a common one.

Only energy efficiency, applied in all cases, would reduce humanity's energy consumption to around a quarter.

If, in turn, that quarter were produced with Clean and Renewable Energies, in energy matters the negative environmental impact would be reduced to a fraction of an order ten times smaller, at least, with respect to its current degree.

In the remaining fields, the application of TA can allow reductions of a comparable order, which can contribute significantly to the reduction of Ft, without considering that some technologies contribute to ecosystem strengthening, and can even contribute to changing the sign of Ft. , making it positive.

But we said before that TAs have enormous potential, considering exclusively their technical availability and omitting factors linked to the logic and operation of the hegemonic consumerist model.

This dominant model tends to concentrate the economic and production means in fewer and fewer hands, with the promotion of "mega works", such as the gigantic industrial centers, the pharaonic energy plants (16), the waterways, the immense monocultured areas of agriculture. extractive and mechanized or the transnational floating factories typical of globalization.

This logic does not stop at planetary borders, and NASA is already studying the possibility of preying on Mars, after launching some hydrogen bombs to conveniently heat its surface.

Within this production-consumer model, AT can only be incorporated, at the slow pace of environmental legislation and the very slow pace of its regulation and compliance, as palliative and secondary measures, and coexist in peripheral or interstitial spaces of the model, but they find powerful brakes. to occupy central positions within it.

Wind or solar generation can solve electricity production, but its penetration in the energy model does not exceed, with exceptions, a few thousandths of the total (17), organic agriculture today represents perhaps a thousandth of the total production (18), Cities that recycle the most only do so by 20% (19).

This difficulty for TAs to make their way non-marginally within the model is due to a complex causal constellation, within which we will highlight two main causes:

a) Centralization. Fritz Schumacher, disseminator and coiner of the concept of TA (20), said that these technologies require production with local raw materials, using light, quasi-artisanal technologies, in small community settings, with a "human face" and for local consumption. TA could acquire universal diffusion as long as the population, the means of production and the economy were decentralized and diversified. TAs are compatible with small towns and small-scale enterprises.
Thousands of small villages can each be powered by a community solar generator, a wind generator or a biodigester, and can receive their vegetables from organic gardens, but it is much more difficult (and even technologically impossible) than Buenos Aires and its surroundings, of course. mention Mexico or San Pablo, whether roofed with solar panels.

b) Consumerism. There are deep interests of the sectors promoting conventional technologies to maintain their dominance in the market, such as the propagation of misunderstandings and errors regarding their limitations, lobbies to prevent their promotion and dissemination, or control. of the technologies themselves to keep their price high (21).
The promotion of consumerism, in turn, through advertising and market mechanisms, attacks AT, which are much more compatible with frugal and moderate consumption.

Both causes in turn are linked through the problem of economies of scale. It is sometimes claimed that ATs are expensive. They are, within the model, scale and logic of the centralized model, but they would be economically compatible within a non-consumerist and decentralized model.
We thus see that the reduction in Ft depends, to a large extent, on a reduction in Fd, and also on C consumption.

In turn, it can be argued that the Concentration Factor Fc is strongly linked to consumption C, since it is the consumerism of the middle and upper classes, and the requirement for cheap labor by producers that has forced concentration urban in contemporary megalopolises, and the migratory processes from the countryside to the city.

The following relational scheme can then be proposed:

Obviously the causal relationships between the three factors are bidirectional, but the arrows show the predominant direction.

Thus, consumption appears as the key factor in generating negative environmental impact, not only because of its direct impact, but also because it sustains other factors, strongly dependent on it.

The "equation": IA(-) = P x C x Ft x Fd can be modified to:

IA(-) = P x C x Ft (C, Fd) x Fd (C) = P x C x Ft (C, Fd (C)) x Fd (C)

In other words, finally AI (-) is above all a function of population and consumption, the latter being the true synergistic factor.

It is clear from this perspective that a profound intervention at the level of generative dynamics requires a renunciation of consumerism, both from the currently dominant sectors, which in their desire for profit and power seek to increasingly centralize economic resources, and from the from the point of view of society in general, which must progressively abandon its desire to concentrate on the large centers of intensive consumption called cities, and accept a more austere lifestyle on the material level, although much richer in its other aspects.
Agreeing with Lester Brown, it would seem that only overcoming materialism as the purpose of human existence can lead to the solution of the environmental crisis (22).

3. Consumption: The Relegated Issue in the Environmental Issue

Paul Ekins said that frugality is a "subversive" notion, since its practice directly attacks the center of the interests of the economic-consumer model.(23)
The global decrease in consumption, as a universal goal in favor of sustainability, is the great forgotten issue in environmental issues.
There is a lot of talk about how to produce cleaner, how to treat toxic effluents, how to manage urban solid waste, energy efficiency, environmental certifications and eco-labelling, but almost no one talks about consuming, and therefore producing less.

What is the reason for this clear omission? From the hegemonic sectors of power, large multinational companies and capitalist thinking in general, the answer is obvious: it is consumerism and the functioning of the market that sustains the privileges of the wealthiest.
Governments ally themselves with this approach, either because they are overwhelmed by said multinational power, or because they adhere to the belief that the greater production-consumption and greater economic power of their countries and administered territories, they will have greater "development" and greater national power. as staff.

Also due to the belief - well promoted and installed - that a reduction in consumption and production will inevitably bring an economic disaster, greater unemployment and poverty.

Obviously, the global reduction in consumption should not be promoted by further suffocating the poorest, or even by proportionally cutting everyone's income.
It is a global reduction in consumption with income redistribution, in such a way that, despite such a global reduction, only the richest quintile sees its income decrease (drastically), while the other four quintiles see it increase.

Annually, the United Nations issues data on the world distribution of income, whose corresponding graph, due to its shape, is known as "the champagne glass." (24)
The world population is divided into five quintiles, and each quintile is assigned the percentage of participation in planetary wealth.
Thus, it is observed that for the richest quintile, 87% of the wealth corresponds, to the next, approximately 10%, and then to the remaining three quintiles, 1,2%, 1% and 0,8%.
After decades of application of the hegemonic development model, the percentage of wealth of the richest quintile never stopped increasing (widening of the mouth of the cup) and the percentages of the poorest quintiles never stopped decreasing (narrowing of the foot - without base - of the cup). The promised "spillover" never came, since the progressive concentration of wealth is structural and inherent to the model.
The figures given by the United Nations are alarming that only 225 fortunes in the world are equivalent to the combined wealth of the poorest half of humanity, and that with only 4% of said wealth the basic problems of humanity could be solved. same (25)

The consumption reduction model with redistribution to be proposed consists of a global reduction in consumption of 40%, that is, a reduction to 60% of the current consumption.

The following table shows what a hypothetical distribution by quintiles would look like:

20% richer87%16%Sharp reduction
Second 20%10%14%40% increase
Third 20%1,2%12%Strong increase
Fourth 20%1%10%Strong increase
20% poorest0,8%8%Strong increase
TOTAL100%60%40% reduction

Note that the current world average per capita income level, of the order of US$ 6500 (26), would become of the order of 60%, that is, about US$ 3900.
But US$3900 is equivalent, for a family of four members, to US$15600 annually, or in other words, US$1300 per month (approximately $4200 per month), which is more than acceptable.

The first critical observation that could be made about this ambitious modification of the global income distribution is that jobs would be reduced by 60%.
However, if two were created for every job, there would be 120% of jobs half as long as the current ones.
It may be asked if such reduced dedication would be enough to support each worker; the answer is almost tautological, since if humanity consumes 60% of the above, overall work can decrease, and the monetary remuneration for it would be sufficient, since It only reflects the production of goods (in a world economy unaffected by financial speculation).

The second observation is that this is utopian, practically impossible to achieve, since those who have power and wealth will not give it up voluntarily.
In this regard, it can be considered that what is not achieved by a consultative will will probably be forced by serious social events, and certainly forced by inevitable environmental events, only in drastic and calamitous ways.
If social sensitivity and human solidarity do not do so, the inexorable advance of environmental deterioration puts more and more pressure, forcing the urgent search for solutions.
This pressure also grows exponentially, and what seems utopian today can be seen as urgent and necessary in a short time.

4. Conclusion: Guidelines to move towards the New Model

There are no antecedent praxis to move towards a new development model, it is about building, in Mardones's words, the "unprecedented viable" (27) but some paths seem, from the opinion to which we subscribe, to be the correct ones:

I.The expansion of environmental consciousness, as a subsystem of a consciousness that some authors call "planetary consciousness" (28), for which a new educational model seems central. The new collective human spirit and purpose could be guided by criteria of moderation, frugality, decentralization and discouragement of all forms of consumerism, in such a way that such criteria, together with the multiplicity of visions promoted by participatory processes, guarantee environmental sustainability and social equity intrinsic to the nature of each undertaking, and not as an added compromise solution. The conceptual framework of Human Scale Development, understanding "development" as the generation of synergistic satisfiers that simultaneously account for a plethora of dimensions of development, many of them intangible such as affection, understanding, freedom, identity, participation or creativity, seems appropriate for this purpose (29)

II.The promotion of participatory processes by actively involving each and every member of each reference community as actors. Such involvement must start from the very instance of perception and definition of the problem to be addressed, and even in the generation of consensus of the knowledge necessary for such an approach. This would give way to participatory democracy, with the generation of new institutional instances arising from the base, which progressively manage to legitimize binding and control mechanisms for governments (30). These instances would be imbued with a new modality of resolution of human affairs (consultative and community leadership) foreign to the proselytizing, divisive and competitive spirit that animates hegemonic institutions (political parties, nation state, private company, among others).

IIIAlong with strong local, decentralized and human-scale participatory bases, the articulation of legitimate supranational spaces is required that manage to establish equitable global policies, since otherwise transnational capital migrates to where it finds conditions favorable to its interests. , and will continue to pollute and generate inequality.
A proposal to consider is the modification of the United Nations system, towards another of "United Nations and Peoples", that is, legitimizing the hitherto informal spaces opened by civil society and NGOs in the various world summits (31).
This new system of global articulation would be clearly different from globalization, since while the latter is clearly uniformizing and overwhelming diversities, it would precisely guarantee a "unity in diversity."

IV.A new epistemic framework seems to begin to take shape from the paradigmatic crisis of science. Systemic, holistic approaches, transdisciplinarity and the vindication and revaluation of paths of knowledge different from the hegemonic positivist one, constitute a fundamental cognitive support for the new model.

To promote these profound transformations, the emerging and increasingly powerful processes of participation of civil society, the construction of full citizenship, aided by the internal contradictions of the hegemonic model, which are leading it more and more rapidly to encounter its own dramatic limits, constitute the path within our reach.

We close with a quote that may be illuminating:
"Unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the improvement of material conditions, it will fail even in achieving these goals." (32)

* By Lucio Capalbo- General Coordinator, UNIDA Foundation

United Nations Population Fund, 1994
2.Vitousek, Peter M. et alia. "Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis", in "BioScience, vol 34, 1986. Cited by Elizalde, Antonio. In "Models of Development and Economic Integration", Revista Argentina de Economía y Ciencias Sociales, Volume 2, 1998.
3.Elizalde, Antonio, Op. Cit.
4.Story by Eng. Rapaport, Martinez, 1992
5.Norman Myers (editor) "The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management", Pan Books, London, 1985, Pages. 154-156
6.Osvaldo Canziani class on "Human Activity and Global Climate Change".
7.Greenpeace, 1996
8.Jorge Adamoli, class No. 13.
9.Gaia Hypothesis, by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis
10.The "north-south" division deepened during UNCED 92, in Rio de Janeiro, occupying in a sense the vacant place of the old "east-west" division. Personally, I do not adhere to any artificial division drawn on the geography of humanity, since they are all based on a single aspect (in this case the degree of material development) and involve dangerous reductionisms.
11.Mario Fittipaldi and team, class 23
12.Bioenvironmental Architecture: Aqta. Liliana Alvarez, Aqtos. Eduardo Yarke and Marta Fujol, Solar Institute of Architecture of Buenos Aires (ISABA)
13.Roberto Fernández, class 20
14.Carlos Barrera, class 11
15.Silvia Fulco, class 27
16.The Three Gorges power plant in China generates a lake 600 km long and 100 km wide, burying cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants and buildings with more than twenty floors.
17.In some regions, such as Holland or California, the percentage of wind generation over the total can reach some percentage digits. But there is a limit that specialists evaluate at around 12% of the total generation, to deliver electrical energy of wind origin to the interconnected network, above which an unwanted imbalance occurs, because wind speed is a variable. stochastic. However, this occurs only if wind energy is considered as generation for the interconnected network. There are no limits, however, when it is proposed for the supply of independent localities.
18.Jorge Adamoli, class 12
19.Mario Fittipaldi and team, class 25
20.F. Schumacher "Small is beautiful"
21.Many oil companies, such as Amoco Oil Company, owner of "Solarex" or BP, are manufacturers of photovoltaic modules.
22.Lester Brown and others, "The State of the World."
23.Ekins, Paul. "A subversive notion." The UNESCO Courier, January 1998
24.Annual report issued by the United Nations
25.Roberto Fernández, class 20
26.Human Development Report, UNDP, 2002
27.Mardones, in "The Role of Volunteering in Today's Society", by Imanol Zubero Beaskoetxea
28.Morin, Edgar and others. "Manifesto on the Spirit of Planetary Consciousness", Budapest, 1996
29.Elizalde, Antonio, Max Neef, Manfred and Hoppenhayn, Martín. "Human Scale Development: an option for the Future", CEPAUR, Santiago de Chile, 1986
30.See the work "Civil Society and Democratic Culture" by Antonio Elizalde and Manfred Max-Neef
31.Leis, Hector Ricardo "A proposal for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations" in "Ecology and World Unity", UNIDA, No. 11,1995
32.BIC NY office. "The Prosperity of Humanity", 1995