The good life: Humans are consuming the world so fast that the future is threatened 

Sep 24, 2019 | 11 comments

Editor’s note: This is the third of an eight-part series about the climate and biodiversity crises. John Keeble is a former Guardian and London Evening News journalist. He is part of Cuenca’s thriving hiking, cycling and writing communities. You can download free his latest novel, Beyond Extinction, via To read part one of the series, click here.

By John Keeble

I have a problem. I hope you will be understanding. I have just been told by an article in The Guardian that male pattern baldness causes mental health problems and, well, I don’t see why, as a species, we should have to put up with it. We must find a cure. I want my hair back. I’m entitled to it.

Hey, wait a moment! Men have been going bald – and not liking it much – for thousands of years. Apparently, Egyptian baldies tried hard to soften their angst as far back as 1550 BC, including rubbing in everything “from ground donkey hooves to hippopotamus fat”. Sounds like a mental health problem to me.

When you beautifully-haired people stop laughing, can we get to the serious point?

We human locusts are taking too much, in every way, for the planet to provide. We expect too much. Not just hair treatments – we expect to have whatever we want, including international obsessions with economic growth and grand projects.

How much longer can we go on buying for pleasure?

Our consumer fixation, lauded in the past and now a crazy habit, digs deeper into the planet’s resources every day.

For example, you eat too much. You have too many possessions. Your everyday life produces pollution on a grand scale. You travel too much and waste water. Me, too. That’s how we are contributing to the end of the human world.

And we distract ourselves from the stark reality of exhausting world resources by living in our own little soap operas, where we are the stars, and hardly noticing the world is on fire from the arctic to sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia and Brazil.

Just take a look at what people had and did 60 years ago and compare that with what you have and do today. Multiply that by the population growth in that time – from three billion in 1960 to more than seven billion today. That is the overconsumption pressure on the planet.

The world’s richest countries – America and Europe, including Britain – consume vast amounts of materials compared with the world’s poorest countries. “On average, an inhabitant of North America consumes around 90 kilograms of resources each day,” said Friends of the Earth. In Europe, consumption is around 45 kg per day, while in Africa, people consume only around 10 kg per day.”

If everyone in the world lived like the average US citizen, our species would need four Earths to sustain ourselves, according to figures produced by the Global Footprint Network.

Although diets are changing towards plant-based foods, the worldwide demand for meat, poultry and fish are very high with land clearance, overfishing and pollution eating into the planet’s sustainability.

In 1960, when we were recovering from the economic disasters of the 1930s and World War 2, no one thought that the rip-roaring economies would lead to today’s crises threatening the very existence of future generations.

Young people then focused on love, social change, and making something of themselves. It is only now, with 20/20 hindsight, we can see that the human world took a wrong turn into self-absorbed life-style fantasies and consumption beyond what the world can provide. The tricky thing is that we like it and want more… in fact, we expect and feel entitled to more even though we know future generations will pay a heavy price.

Mr question: How can you, personally, adapt to help save future generations that include your own grandchildren and great grandchildren? Plant-based meals a couple of days a week? Less water and energy use? Fewer purchases in plastic bottles or bags?

People are accustomed to buying whatever they can afford – and, for many people, much more than they can afford, thanks to borrowing. A new car … house … furniture … holidays … the list goes on. Then the ‘minor items’ like clothes, an incredible choice of food, chemicals to make hygiene easy, computers and TVs, electronic games for the kids, sensuous bed sheets for the adults.

Some things are less apparent than a second or third car. How much water and energy do we waste by staying in the shower for pleasure rather than cleanliness? Do we even need to shower every day? Well, what does it matter? The cost is negligible — we can afford it. In cash terms. But what about in environmental terms?

What about destructive and wasteful industries and projects? The arms industry… ever-increasing transport… the covering of the world in concrete buildings… the hugely damaging meat and dairy industries… the chemicals poisoning the Earth in the name of agricultural efficiency…

My questions: how much care do you take in checking on your favourite politician and, especially, in voting? Does your favourite candidate convince you that she or he will fight for your family’s future – in other words, fight to stop damage to the world’s climate and the mass extinctions of wildlife and plant life? Lose those fights and humans will probably go the way of the dinosaurs., which tracks our use of planet resources against availability, points out that in 1961 we used 75 per cent of resources that either renewed themselves (eg, fish in the oceans) annually or recovered (eg, planet’s ability of deal with carbon dioxide).

This year we will use 175 per cent of the planet’s ability to renew or recover. Put another way, we are destroying, by consumption, nearly twice as fast as the planet can replenish and stay in balance. I know what that means when I do it with my monthly income. Do you?

Water is fast becoming a major problem with a third of the world’s population suffering shortages for at least a month in each year. At current consumption, two-thirds may suffer water shortages by 2025, says the World Wildlife Fund.

2025?! We are now in 2019! Two-thirds of the world’s population could suffer water shortages in six years’ time.

“Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes toward raising animals for food. Here’s proof that meat wastes water: it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat,” says the animal charity Peta.

With an average of 250 babies born every minute and populations – with the benefit of medicines – living longer, the planet’s food bill goes up all the time. And so does the need for human space and shelter.

Hey, you! Wake up! This is about you eating steaks and palm oil, standing in the shower for half an hour, voting for the politician that offers you the best tax deal rather than protecting the planet for your future generations.

Land clearance – the theft of wildlife habitats and destruction of the planet’s ecosystems – is a major outcome of overconsumption and it is endangering the planet. But you know this. You would need to have been asleep for years to miss the brutal palm oil expansion in Indonesia and the beef production fires in the Amazon.

How do you feel about food being wasted? National Geographic reports that more than a third of all food produced is wasted by individuals and businesses like restaurants and shops. It is not just the tomato or egg thrown in the bin. It is the land, the production energy, the pollution, the transport, and the waste itself damaging the environment.

Not keen on that? Okay, an easy question for you. How do you feel about wasting the future because you would rather have a good life now?

Don’t send a reply on a resources-wasting postcard. Just think out what you want to do to help save the world for future generations and do it.


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