Consumerism & Climate Change

Detective agencies held for illegally providing mobile phone CDRsHercule Poirot, private detective and retired Belgian police officer, solves the murder of Ratchett on the Orient Express. Ratchett found dead was either murdered by a stranger who boarded the train and escaped, or could it be that the 12 stab wounds were inflicted by all 12 passengers on the train? Each one equally as guilty, united in murder had committed this crime solved magnificently by the brilliant detective.

I received this book when I was 12 at a prize giving ceremony at secondary school and it became one of my favourites. My mind flashed to this book recently as I started to think about one of the biggest problems facing our world today: Climate Change.

But what does Murder on the Orient Express have to do with the heating of the planet? Give me time and I’ll get there. I am by no means a Scientist, but the research shows us that the reason for the planet getting warmer is the increasing presence of greenhouse gases which trap heat. Greenhouse gases include Carbon Dioxide, Methane Nitrous Oxide and Fluorinated gases, but the greatest culprit is Carbon Dioxide which is released primarily by fossil fuel and industrial processes.

Source: IPCC (2014) based on global emissions from 2010. Details about the sources included in these estimates can be found in the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Before you stop reading because Science is not your thing, I beg you to stay with me a bit longer. This is important because you and I have all ‘taken a stab.’ We all have played a role in contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We have as a human race become caught up in consumerism: buying more stuff to fill voids internally, moving up the social ladder and simply wanting more. This in turn has resulted in increased production, increased emissions and rising temperatures. Industry (factories) contributes 21% of the greenhouse gas emissions, electricity and heat production, 25% and transportation 14%.

To produce those extra pair of shoes, a factory uses electricity and transportation is then engaged to ensure you get them. I’ll be honest, I love a deal and I like to go shopping, but there comes a point when one must stop and ask the question, do I need this or do I need that? At first it comes down to an economic decision – SAVE the money. However, often, we fail to make the link to climate change. Our increased spending is heating the planet up!

Look at the chart below that shows the global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. If you examine the period 1990-1920, you will notice a very small movement in carbon emissions, and the same thing from 1920-1940. But look at the period 1940-1960 and again 1960-1980 – that increase on the chart is super steep!

Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

What was happening during this period that causes this sharp increase? Let’s cross over from Science to History and teleport to the Roaring Twenties. This was known as the emergence of American consumerism. Consumerism is the theory that it is economically attractive to encourage the attainment of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.”[1]

The Industrial Revolution which dates back to the 1700’s helped to first drive consumerism in Europe and North America and led to the emergence of different factories and mines. Factories were able to produce a wide variety of products on mass-scale which resulted in an abundance of new, cheap goods which people could afford to buy. Something fundamentally changed in the 1950’s and 60’s (remember our chart on emissions?). This period became known as the ‘golden age of consumerism.’

Marketing and advertising now stepped up a notch. Many campaigns during this period promoted a sense of identity that could be met through purchasing products and people began to equate their social status and success with their ability to purchase and consume. This caused consumerism to explode! So, an increase in spending and the rise in consumerism was happening at the very same time that the carbon emissions were increasing significantly. As if that were not enough, industry decisions took a turn and looked toward cheaper sources of production, that would make products even more cheaper and therefore more appealing to consumers and hence outsourcing to countries such as China and India began. Does it come as any surprise that the biggest emitters are China, the US, the EU and India?


Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017

But before we start ‘calling out’ these countries, think long and hard about it. They produce to meet demand- OUR demand. Economics has always been the main motivator for any business decision. Friends, there is a link between your shopping spree and the factory levels of shirts, bags, shoes and such like produced in China and India. There is a link in the electricity costs and fossil fuel consumption to power those shopping malls in the US that we islanders love to go to. We along with the rest of humanity continue to consume in efforts to maintain our lifestyles and then pray each June to November for the hurricanes to by-pass us. Now back to Murder on the Orient Express, could it be that together, by our small actions, we are collectively contributing to the rising global temperature through our insatiable appetites for more?

I am certainly not saying never to go shopping again. But what I am saying is to become more conscious of the drive to consume and to practice contentment. Assess the root of your next purchase; are you a victim of the marketing and advertising campaigns? Your value or worth does not come from your next purchase. As humanity continues to experience rising temperature levels, increased droughts and stronger hurricanes and typhoons, apart from climate strikes to draw attention, perhaps we should do some soul searching and strike against consumerism.

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