Hungry Hungry Human: Innovation is key to the survival of our society, Pt. 10

the consumer society is happy now (for a while) by MarS

I hope that the previous sections have provided some clarity of a range of impacts related to our use of fossil fuels. I know that in general, I brushed over various subjects, rather than explain the cause and effect to any great degree. This is because a number of other blogs has already done this work. I also included all the references, so that it’s easy to venture back for further detail. In this way, although I developed an argument of a world in trouble, I didn’t want to dwell too much on the bad, for there are many opportunities for a prosperous and bright future. The following section is the heart of this series. Gaskins et al. (2007) found that people who were already ill were more likely to have a better diet than those who were not. I guess in the same way, I hoped in the previous sections to demonstrate that we are sick, ecological systems that we rely on are sick  and ignorance in the face of a changing world is likely to exacerbate the illness. The first issue I’d like to address is very much like an overweight patient sitting before the GP, who has just been told that their high energy, heavily processed diet is leading them straight to type two diabetes and chronic illness. Does the patient refute the GP’s qualification on the advice of the questionable Monckton (for instance) and continue an unhealthy diet (ie. “you can’t prove beyond a doubt that I’ll get sick”) or does he take the message on board?

New heavy consumers

Recently I asked a question on a blog I’ve been following for some time now which alone caused an unexpected backlash. I totally agree with many points made (largely that the next phase of mass energy will come from generation III and IV reactors), however, the point was made that environmentalists believe that the best low-carbon solution is to simplify to a less consumer orientated society; that this was unrealistic. I certainly don’t disagree – the way forward is not to head backwards. However, (this being the point that caused the explosion of attacks) why shouldn’t efficiency remain part of our future, even if the power supply is abundant without the environmental impacts of fossil fuels?

The anger that I faced largely came in the form of, “don’t force you’re ideology on me and force me to use less energy… Why should I? There’s an amazing amount of radioactive material to exploit?”

Around the point I was “ousted” as a “hairshirt green”, I figured that I was unlikely to get a reasonable response and moved on. Later on, I’ll look more into my reasoning for this question, however, at this point, I want to focus on the reaction I received and a look at the consumer.

The weight of the situation

The World Health Organization (WHO), projected that, in 2005, over 1.6 billion people over the age of 15 where overweight. This, WHO suggests, could double within a decade [1]. The reasons WHO associate this with are both poor diet (heavy in sugars and fats while low in vitamins and minerals) and increasingly sedentary lifestyles [1]. While this used to be a concern of more affluent societies, it is a rising problem among all socio-economic groups [1], which would suggest that poor diet is the cheap and readily available. In other words fast food.

It is natural to assume that the energy consumption per capita would relate to the general standards of living of people within that society. However, in the US, the consumption of energy per capita is roughly twice as the average of a country within the European Union (EU) and yet this does not equate to greater standard of living – using a number of socio-economic indicators, the US actually falls behind the EU nations average standards of living (Smil, 2009). It was argued (in the discussion mentioned above), that this is the result of how different the transport system is in both regions and modifying them would be improbable. It is clear that in many people in cities of the US spend more than 30-40% of their yearly income on transportation [2], however, this is certainly causes by a combination of urban-city travel (cheaper housing, but increased travel costs), unnecessarily large vehicles and frequent solo travel.

Water too has been treated as an all too abundant commodity, where copious amounts of energy are used to pump it from location to location, treated to drinking standard from where it is as likely to be drunk as it is to be flushed [2].

The criticism thrown at me largely regarded such things as trivial when the nuclear age takes true hold; as energy will be lead to many generations of cheap and abundant without the pesky issue of CO2 emissions. We can expend the extra energy to make nitrogen fertilizers by other means, water security will no longer be an issue, high product turnover rates seem more viable, etc.

I argue, how far does this go? Will processing food and liposuction be so cheap an easy that we won’t need to worry about agriculture and fitness? Will the ecological services we obtain from nature become relics of a simple past; so much so that concern over biodiversity loss becomes at best a hobby? Will our ability to condition the atmosphere be so great that forests in general can finally be cleared to make way for more human habitation, with nothing by parks as distant reminders? Will we be become so complacent that when the day finally comes, however centuries hence, that this wonderful material is finally spent, that we are unable to use the grey matter in any imaginative fashion to find a solution to a world so fundamentally changed and deplete of useful energy?

If efficiency can only marginal at a personal difference, that still a bonus. The real goal of efficiency should be to keep on our toes and keep wondering how we could improve or do things differently. Constant improvement could mean the difference of a millennium of nuclear power or much much more. It could also lead to the development of technologies unimaginable at this point in time. It would almost certainly address a need to relate with our local flora and fauna for the sake of mental and physical health.

When you have a man in his 30 using a personal scooters as transport, solely because his lifestyle has led to him being unable to walk further than to his letter box and the sheer bulk is enough to cause stress to his heart, or technology with an average lifespan of a few years you cannot help but wonder what the real costs are with the cheap and easy energy supply and how we tend to use it without thinking.

The, “just ‘cos it’s there and easy,” is without a doubt the root of unsustainable lifestyles.

Gaskins, N. D., Sloane, P. D., Mitchell, C. M., Ammerman, A., Ickes S. B., and, Williams, C. S. (2007) Poor Nutritional Habits: A Modifiable Predecessor of Chronic Illness? A North Carolina Family Medicine Research Network (NC-FM-RN) Study. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 20(2): 124-134. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2007.02.060151
[1] WHO Obesity and overweight, accessed on 19/06/2010
Smil, V. (2009) U.S. energy policy: The need for radical departures. Issues in Science and Technology Summer 2009:47-50
[2] Opportunities beyond carbon: looking forward to a sustainable world. Editor O’Brien J. (2009) Largely chapter 8 by Prof Peter Newman in this section

2 thoughts on “Hungry Hungry Human: Innovation is key to the survival of our society, Pt. 10

  1. Really enjoying this series, Tim. I can still remember a day at Uni when my friend walked out of the toilet, looked at me, and said: “We use DRINKING water to flush our toilets.”

    I think one of the biggest factors playing into consumerism is the almost completely hidden resource footprint associated with almost everything we use. If a tray of food is brought in for a business lunch, and half the sandwiches are thrown away, then it isn’t ‘just’ the sandwich wasted. It’s the arable land space for growing the wheat for the bread, the salads, the meat, the power for processing the food, the fossil fuels for transport, the person hours in making the food… all expended simply to make sure no-one at the lunch would face an empty plate.

    There’s examples like that behind every product, and it’s not until I actually really started thinking about it that I started changing my purchasing habits, etc.


    1. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
      It’s this mentality that is the most worrisome to me. As much as we’ve done some incredible things on the back of fossil fuels, we’ve also developed a massive complacency for the amount of waste we create. As I’ve made a point of in this piece (and the next to come – but I cut it out eventually), I got into discussions with people whom I thought the same way. It turned out that under their “environmental concern” there was a simple desire to maintain business as usual which I argue means that the cheapest practice is one based on poor practices (the reason fast, processed food are so cheap and that technology doesn’t only upgrade rapidly, but the life span of devices is so poor). While these people go on about CO2, ocean acidification, species degradation, they make it clear that as soon as the nuclear future is secure, they want a bigger personal vehicle. It seems that many are hard of learning.
      BTW, Climate Shift had an excellent piece today about the Cap and trade. The piece they talk about goes into this industrial urge to exploit poor nations because it’s cheap.
      I really think that a change in the way we think will be the most important change that we make over the coming century.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s