Almost everything we consume involves materials that have been extracted, processed, transformed, bought and sold, subsidized, and often moved across vast distances. Our economy is built around these raw materials – natural resources – like trees, gas, oil, metal ores, water and fertile land. For example, take a look at what goes into your smartphone.
Our consumption includes energy needs from our home, transportation, food we eat, clothes we wear, and the computers we use.
How does your consumption impact the planet?
Beef, climate change, and deforestation
Raising cattle for beef is a leading cause of deforestation, soil erosion, water depletion, and wildlife endangerment. But it also directly impacts wildlife. Wolves are constantly under threat within the United States as they are perceived as a threat to livestock. Wolves are being targeted in an extermination campaign sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to protect cattle interests. The Mexican Grey Wolf has already gone extinct in southwestern ecosystems due to “predator control systems” crafted to protect livestock.
Similarly, the threat that beef production poses to wildlife also extends to the tropics, where deforestation is putting jaguars on the brink of extinction. As deforestation drives the destruction of jaguar habitat, it also destroys the habitat of its natural prey, leading jaguar to untypically prey on domestic cattle. This means that jaguars are not only threatened by deforestation itself but also by direct hunting when they threaten the bottom line for cattle interests. So, raising cows for human consumption is dangerous not only for cows, of course, but also for wildlife.
In addition, one of the biggest purveyors of environmental crimes - illegal logging and deforestation - continue to produce soy, cattle, timber, and other commodities, shipping their products internationally to the United States, Europe and China. Forty-one percent of Europe's beef imports come from Brazil, while cattle ranching remains the leading cause of Amazon deforestation. "We are all buying products that are destroying the forests illegally," said Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch (Pacific Standard).
Not only is the forest and wildlife being impacted, but indigenous groups are increasingly being threatened in direct response to expanding deforestation due to agriculture (Sax 2019).
Palm oil in your processed food
As the highest yielding vegetable oil crop, palm oil is cheap and efficient. With over 50 percent of processed foods containing palm oil and its prevalence in other commercial goods like soaps and dog food, palm oil production is taking its toll on ecosystems and wildlife. While efforts are being undertaken to produce sustainable palm oil, it’s current rate of use coupled with its currently destructive production practices mean that unless we change our practices immediately, these may be the last days of some of our beloved earthlings.
Perhaps the most notable species to be decimated by the palm oil industry is the orangutan. These cuties, with which we share 96.4 percent of our, are victims of habitat destruction. The dominant method of making room for more oil palms is to slash and burn. The result is the direct killing of orangutans by fire as well as over 80 percent of their habitat being destroyed in just the last 20 years. This leaves them with an estimated 25 years to extinction.
Similarly, deforestation to produce palm oil has taken its toll on the tigers of Sumatra and Malaysia. In just two years time, from 2009 to 2011, approximately two-thirds of Sumatran tiger habit was overcome by palm oil plantations. The result is that fewer than 400 wild tigers are left in existence.
The current state of our oceans means that all fishing is "overfishing." While some may find it difficult to empathize with the fish we eat – despite the fact that current research indicates their sentience beyond the shadow of a doubt – who doesn’t love dolphins, whales and turtles? Well, these are the creatures threatened when we purchase commercial fish.
Destructive fishing practices include: bottom trawling, which involves massive dragnets that sweep the ocean from floor to roof; poison fishing, which involves injecting cyanide and other chemicals into reef crevices to scare fish out into the open; and dynamite or blast fishing, which involves explosives that kill fish who are then captured from the surface water.
Fishing is contributing to the catastrophic decline of ocean species. As with many wildlife species, the act of fishing itself isn't inherently bad. Rather, unsustainable harvesting of fish stocks which aren't allowed to replenish themselves is causing irreparable harm, leading to over-fishing. And before you worry that increased regulation of the seas would have devastating consequences for small fisherman, note that the most of the fishing that occurs in developed countries is attributed to corporations who run massive fleets and make billions. Case in point, it was revealed last year that 29% of the UK’s haul is a result of five families, all of whom are exceptionally wealthy (Dowler 2018). A single Dutch company which operates a vast fleet of vessels contributes another 24% of UK's take. Whereas your mom and pop trawlers – less than 10m long – are only taking 2% of all hauls despite making up more than 79% of the fleet (Monbiot 2019).
The number of overfished stocks globally has tripled in half a century and today fully one-third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Overfishing is closely tied to bycatch—the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species. This, too, is a serious marine threat that causes the needless loss of billions of fish, along with hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and cetaceans.
In addition to destroying coral reefs and plant life, which itself threatens the foundation of marine ecosystems, these methods are responsible for the direct killing of huge numbers of fish, turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, many of which are already endangered. Over 7 million tons of marine life is caught and killed annually as an unintentional result of commercial fishing. This results in the injury or death of over 650,000 marine mammals every year.
Electricity and Devises
The world's richest countries consume on average 10 times as many materials as the poorest . It's grossly unequal. Many of the world's population hardly see a peep of these resources. North America and Europe have by far the biggest material footprints on the planet. The UK is hugely dependent on other countries’ minerals, raw materials, water and land. If everyone lived like the average US citizen, we'd need around 4 Earths to sustain ourselves.
The over-consumption of energy, water and raw materials worsens climate change and increases air pollution. It exhausts the planet's life support systems like the ones that provide us with fresh water, and leaves us short of materials critical to our health and quality of life.
Fossil fuels provided 80 percent of total energy used in 2018. Consumption of natural gas and petroleum grew by 4 percent, while coal consumption declined by 4 percent compared to the year before. Renewable energy production also reached a record high last year, climbing 3 percent relative to 2017. More goods, more travel, more services mean using more fuel and electricity.
First, we need to promote activities and products that are good for people and the planet.
We need stronger laws. Companies should be made to report on every single aspect of their supply chains – from excavation to the store window – including water and land use, and climate-changing emissions.
And, we need circular economies that prioritize re-using, recycling and repairing. This can include educating consumers but also requires input from elected officials to encourage companies to design products to last longer so that precious and limited natural resources can last longer. This might have to happen through transparent reporting on product longevity, for example. Knowing that a product will only last 2 years may encourage people to pay a little more for something that lasts twice as long. And, by requiring products to have responsible end-lives where they are designed to either be reused, recycled, or repaired can minimize the amount of waste that is created.
If drastic solutions aren't implemented soon, humans will pay the price first. A new report from the United Nations suggests that the "scale and pace of biodiversity loss is now endangering the foundations of human society itself" (Nelson 2019).
See what impact you're having on the planet and what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.
How sustainable is your smartphone?
Natural resources: Overconsumption and the environment
Dowler 2018. Revealed: the millionaires hoarding UK fishing rights. Unearthed.
Monbiot 2019. Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas. The Guardian
Four commodities--beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products—drive the majority of tropical deforestation
Brazilian companies illegally degrading the Amazon continue to operate with impunity
EU 'outright dangerous' in its use of natural resources, says WWF