When will we reach peak stuff?

It is a pretty legitimate question in this day and age. The Earth is under unprecedented stresses from its human population. Earth Overshoot Day in 2017 was on August 2nd (the day each year we use up the annual output of renewable resources produced by the planet).

Temperatures are on the rise (this visualisation by climate scientist Ed Hawkins was also screened during the Rio Olympics):

And despite a flattening off in global CO2 (equivalent) emissions over the past three years, it looks like 2017 is going to be setting a new record once more (data from Global Carbon Project 13th November 2017):

As I’ve outlined previously, a very large proportion of our carbon footprint (some people say over 60%) can be traced back to individual behaviour – largely summed up as the amount and type of electricity we use, our transport means and the stuff we buy.

In the electricity sector, we are seeing quite a lot of change. Renewable energy technologies expanded their capacity during 2016 by somewhere between 161 and 165 GW. This compares to 86GW for new coal and gas combined. Prices of renewable generation and energy storage have been dropping for years, meaning that basically fossil fuel’s days as a stationery energy source could be numbered. Energy efficiency of industrial machinery and residential appliances is improving too – although this may be counteracted to a significant extent by the rebound effect.

Great. How about transport? Well anybody who has been following the news at all in the last few years has probably heard of electric vehicles by now. From an energy perspective these aren’t necessarily consuming enormously less joules for every kilometre driven, but as the electricity sector moves towards renewables the carbon intensity drops and the number of countries where a CO2 saving can be made by running EVs will increase. Italy for example is a predominantly fossil fuel powered nation, but EVs outperform conventional petroleum powered vehicles in terms of life cycle CO2 released. Autonomous vehicles are the other buzzword in transport, but the jury’s still out as to what impact this will have on carbon emissions.

But for the last of these consumer driven choices, the stuff we buy, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. Are we consuming any less than before?

Doesn’t look like it. Only four of the past 45 years has not experienced growth in the World Bank’s “Household final consumption expenditure per capita growth (annual %)” global data (adjusted for inflation). See my graph below.


Now remember this data is per capita. I like per capita data when we are talking about the actions of the individual since it is the same level. However if you want to look at data showing the global trend (including changes in population), this shows a rather bleaker image for the planet. Net global household consumption has more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2016. Admittedly much of the global growth has come from countries that are rapidly developing. But even developed countries are increasing their per capita household consumption – from developed to over-developed perhaps? Even though we know that simply owning more possessions (in a developed context) don’t make us any happier.

We are less than one week out from Christmas. Many organised people will have gone through the chaos of Christmas shopping already. Buying things for others that probably aren’t useful to them. The retail industry is relentless of course – marketing everything under the sun to us. In a growth driven world, this is pretty understandable – Christmas represents roughly a 30% boom in sales in the UK for example.

GBThe trend is up in the UK and most of the rest of the world. When will we satisfy our need for more consumables? Did you know that the US reportedly consumes 40% of the world’s toys? Kids are learning from us that more is better and most is best. Why don’t we give gift-giving a miss? “Traditions” like gifts at Christmas are largely retailers’ rather successful ploys for growth growth and more growth.

Last year I took on the challenge of buying no more than one new consumable a month. Second-hand items were allowed together with a few other things, but after a short period of wanting that new gadget or item of clothing, the desire soon fades away. Others report similar experiences. The movement towards downsizing our shopping habits seems to be gathering a bit of attention, most recently in the NY Times.

If you are still trapped in a world of Christmas gifts, then you can at least consider giving something like time (like offering to babysit for a night) or experiences (such as tickets to the theatre). In any case, research from several fronts shows that giving non-physical gifts is much more appreciated and makes people happier than giving conventional consumables.

A peak in our desire for stuff isn’t yet in sight, but hopefully the aforementioned trends can slowly begin to make a dent in the shiny black friday armour of the retail sector and growth-driven economy more generally.





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