Department of the Environment

About us | Contact us | Publications

About us header images - leftAbout us header images - centreAbout us header images - right

Publications archive


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Consumption and the Environment

Environmental Economics Seminar Series
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24878 8

The need to change our consumption habits

Dr Stephen BOYDEN
Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies
Australian National University


I have been asked to talk about the reasons why we must change our patterns of consumption. This is not a particularly demanding task, because the reasons are rather obvious and, I believe, fairly well known. It would be much more of a challenge to have to discuss the means of achieving the necessary changes in a way that maintains, or better still, improves human welfare.

My paper is based on the biohistorical approach to the study of human situations. For those who are not familiar with this term, a word of explanation is necessary. Biohistory can be defined as knowledge about:


FIGURE 1 image figure 1
(a) the history and characteristics of the processes of life on Earth (the Biosphere in Figure 1);
(b) the evolutionary background and biology of the human species (Humans in Figure 1); and
(c) the interactions, past and present, between human culture (Culture in Figure 1 ) and biological systems.
FIGURE 2 image figure 2

- Conceptual model of culture nature interplay

FIGURE 3 image figure 3

- Per capita energy used in different societies

Figure 2 represents a more detailed version of this conceptual model.

Biohistory is thus concerned with aspects of reality of enormous consequence for us all, and it has important contributions to make to our understanding of many human and social problems.

Today, we are applying the biohistorical approach to consumption and the environment. At the outset, it is important to emphasize the fact that consumption, in the sense that we are using the word today, is one part of a set of four interdependent activities which are characteristic of all human societies - namely, Extraction, Production, Consumption and Pollution (i.e. waste production), each of which has impacts, directly or indirectly, on the environment.

The relevance of the biohistorical perspective to the theme of this symposium will be discussed under two headings: Consumption and the ecology of human populations and Consumption and human biological needs.

Consumption and the ecology of human populations

Our form of humanity, Homo sapiens sapiens , has been in existence for at least 100,000 years (or, if we take a generation to be 25 years, for 4,000 generations).

Even before the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens , the human capacity for culture and technology had given rise to an ecological development of great ecological significance - the deliberate and controlled use of fire. This development, along with the manufacture of tools, introduced a new dimension into the metabolism of human populations. Thus, apart from biometabolism, or the inputs, throughputs and outputs of organic material, water and oxygen flowing through human bodies, there was now also technometabolism, which is the inputs, throughputs and outputs of materials and energy as a result of technological processes. Technometabolism is thus the flow of materials and energy resulting from the extraction -production-consumption-pollution nexus of human activities.

It has been estimated that the use of fire resulted in humans using, on average, about twice as much energy per day per capita as would otherwise have been the case (Newcombe, 1976). Half of this energy was that involved in biometabolism - and referred to in this paper as bioenergy (also known as somatic energy) (Figure 3). The other half, resulting from the burning of plant material, was an aspect of technometabolism, and referred to here as technoenergy (also known as extrasomatic energy). Thus the total amount of energy used by the average individual would have been about two Human Energy Equivalents (HEE), or 20 megajoules (MJ).(see note 1 below)

In energy terms, the intensity of technometabolism remained at quite modest levels until quite recently. Certainly, there was some increase in the per capita use of technoenergy associated with new uses of various mineral resources, notably clay and certain metals, but at the population level the rate of use of total energy was probably not greater than three-four HEE per person.

FIGURE 4 image figure 4

Total energy use by human kind in three periods in history

1 Human Energy Equivalent (HEE) is 10 megajoules(MJ), which is about the amount of bioenergy used in the body of an active adult human in one day.

Then, about eight generations ago, there was another cultural development of immense ecological significance. It was the introduction of a range of different machines driven by technoenergy, the main source of which was, and has remained, the combustion of fossil fuels. Since this industrial transition, and especially in the present century, there has been an explosive increase in the intensity of technometabolism, in terms of both energy and materials.

In Australia in 1940 the per person energy use was about 20 HEE. In 1960 it was around 30 HEE, and in 1990 it was 60 HEE.

Energy use is, of course, only one aspect of consumption, but it is the best single indicator of the overall intensity of extraction, production, consumption and pollution. While there have been enormous increases in the rate of use of minerals, it is not possible to construct a single index to cover them all. The case of iron, however, is revealing. The per person use of iron in hunter-gather society was zero. In Shakespeare's England it may have been about 1gm per day. In modern Australia, the figure is around 2,300gm (this does not include exported, imported and recycled iron).

Figure 4 illustrates the growth in total energy use by our species since the time farming was first introduced around 450 generations ago. The figure for total energy use by humankind today is about 10,000 times what it was when farming began. While part of the increase is accounted for simply by the growth of the human population, by far the greater part of the increase is due, as the diagram shows, to the explosive increase in the intensity of technometabolism. About 75 per cent of this energy is used by the one quarter of the world's population that lives in the developed countries.

The rate of energy use is still increasing rapidly. If the developed societies were to cease growing in this respect, and the developing regions were to 'catch up' with them, then the total energy use would be 50,000 times greater than at the time that farming began.

There has thus been a phenomenal increase in the rate of use of resources and discharge of wastes by this single animal species, Homo sapiens, over the past couple of centuries, and especially in the last 50 years.

These perspectives are important in the context of today's theme, consumption and the environment, because they raise the critical question:- How much longer will the life-promoting processes of the biosphere be able to support this massive increase in the intensity of technometabolism? Common sense, as well as an elementary understanding of ecological principles, tell us that there must, indeed, be a limit.

It is now widely accepted, in fact, that even the present pattern of technometabolism is not ecologically sustainable in the long run. The Brundtland Report (WCED 1987), for example, which is a relatively conservative document, states clearly that the biosphere, as a system capable of supporting humankind, will not tolerate indefinitely the current levels of resource and energy use and waste production.

Basically, there are two possible causes of ecological unsustainability: the eventual exhaustion of resources, and irreversible damage to the life-promoting processes of the biosphere. The first of these is clearly a potential cause of trouble for humankind, and might well lead to violent conflicts between nations. Nevertheless, in my view, human ingenuity is likely to result in ways being found to deal with most of the impending scarcities. Recycling, for example, can alleviate the problem in some instances. As economists often point out, substitution is another possibility (although of no use in the case, for instance, of phosphorus, water or soil in food producing systems).

The second cause of ecological unsustainability, irreversible damage to the biosphere resulting from the discharge into the environment of excessive amounts of technological wastes, is very much more serious, and would leave virtually no scope for human adaptability. The rest of this paper focuses on this issue.

Certainty and uncertainty

In the context of the ecological predicament, we must distinguish between the certainties and the uncertainties. Especially important among the former is the fact that there are limits to the amount of technological wastes that can be discharged into the biosphere before the system ceases to be capable of supporting life as we know it today.

This aspect of reality can be illustrated by reference to the principle of the polluted fish tank. If we pour a small amount of technological wastes into a well balanced aquarium, a few of the species living in it may be adversely affected, and may disappear. But others will survive, and possibly prosper. If, however, we continue to pour in the waste materials, other species will be affected, and eventually, if we go on increasing the concentration of pollutants, the aquarium will cease to support any form of life.

This principle applies to all ecosystems, from aquariums, backyards and local ponds, to islands, continents and even the biosphere as a whole.

There are two key uncertainties. First, it is not known how much longer the biosphere can withstand the present trends. It is pertinent, however, that there are already signs of progressive, human-induced, change occurring not just locally or regionally, but now at the level of the whole planet. In other words, in our own lifetime, and for the first time in thousands of millions of years of life on Earth, a single species of animal is causing ecological disturbances at a global level.

The other key uncertainty is that science cannot at present predict which particular ecological change represents the biggest threat to the system.

Needless to say, groups in society who oppose societal changes aimed at achieving sustainability exploit these uncertainties to the full: 'even the scientists can't agree among themselves'. With regard to the first of these uncertainties, opinions differ about the urgency of the problem. One of the most common views is that of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), made up of over 1500 individuals including 101 Nobel Prize winners. Late in 1992 they issued a statement entitled 'World's scientists' warning to humanity'. The following extract from the press release that accompanied the publication of this statement summarises their position.

The appeal focuses on the environmental and resource damage caused by overconsumption in the industrialized countries - the world's largest polluters - and the pressures on the environment caused by poverty and spiralling populations in the developing world. The scientists emphasize the urgency of the problem. As they note in their appeal: 'No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats that we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished'. (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992)

With respect to the second uncertainty, one of the most talked about threats to the system is global climate change resulting from the enhanced green house effect, due to the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels. In this connection, another important statement by scientists appears in the report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the effect that, to bring a halt to human-induced climate change due to the enhanced greenhouse effect, it would be necessary to reduce carbon emissions, immediately, at once by over 60 per cent. (International Panel on Climate Change, 1990).

Of course, there are others who reject such statements. They talk, for example, of 'doomsayers', 'scare-mongers' and of 'the greenhouse conspiracy'. Often, these people are linked with groups that would be financially disadvantaged by reduction in overall levels of resource consumption or of fossil fuel use. This response is to be anticipated. It is characteristic of all reform movements, including the Public Health Movement of the last century, the saga of 'Silent Spring' and DDT, and the debate about tobacco smoking and health. One difference between the global ecological debate and these other examples is the fact that the stakes are higher. The issue in this case is, many believe, the very survival of the human species.

Indeed, let us hope that the Union of Concerned Scientists and the International Panel on Climate Change are wrong, and that we have more time than they suggest to mend our ways. But whether they are right or wrong, it is abundantly clear that, at some time, humans must devise new patterns of resource and energy use which are more in tune with ecological realities, and which are sensitive to the health needs both of the ecosystems of the biosphere and of all sections of the human community.

Consumption and human biological needs

Clearly, the most urgent and compelling reasons for changing our consumption habits relate to the needs of the life-promoting processes of the biosphere on which we depend. But it is also pertinent to raise the issue of the needs of humans themselves. The key question in this context is: Do we actually need such extraordinarily high levels of consumption in order to live healthy and enjoyable lives?

The evidence from biohistory shows clearly that all the health needs of the human species can be satisfied in situations involving very much lower rates of consumption, and people have led healthy and enjoyable lives with very much lower material standards of living.

The difficulty lies in the fact that, in the present cultural setting (although not in some other cultural settings), the satisfaction of many of the basic health needs, as well as the behavioural expression of some fundamental aspects of human nature, are necessarily associated with high rates of technometabolism. Even the consumption of a healthy diet, for example, usually involves high rates of energy use and technological waste production due to transportation, packaging and the use of artificial fertilizers.

With regard to human behaviour, people in contemporary society, in seeking 'in-group' approval, status, novelty or attention find themselves performing specific actions which are very costly in terms of resource and energy use and waste production. In other cultural settings the expression of these same basic behavioural tendencies has not involved such costs.

Consider also, for example, the case of greed. While this is not a universal human characteristic, it is by no means uncommon. The significant point is that, in the present cultural environment, the expression of greed inevitably has much greater impact on the biosphere than in previous situations.

Even consumer behaviour itself - or the act of purchasing manufactured goods - makes a definite contribution to human well-being in our present society. For many individuals it is an important source of enjoyment, tending to counter the undesirable effects of boredom and other environmental stressors, and so promoting psychological health. A common and effective response to a feeling of depression is a shopping spree. Indeed, it can be argued that material consumption of this kind has come to replace, or compensate for, more biosphere-friendly forms of enjoyment that were important in earlier societies. But if the opportunity for consumer behaviour were suddenly to be taken away from our own society, without the reintroduction of less resource- and energy-costly sources of enjoyment, there would undoubtedly be widespread feelings of deprivation and discontent, with adverse consequences for health and well-being.

Summary and conclusions

For ecological reasons, then, the present patterns of extraction of resources, industrial production, consumption and pollution by humankind cannot go on for ever without causing irreversible damage to the life-promoting processes of the biosphere. Consequently, the well-being, and possibly survival, of humanity will depend on the eventual modification of these patterns. The magnitude of the ecological changes that are already taking place, the scale of the human activities that are responsible for them, and the advice of a large body of scientists, leave little doubt that it would be the height of folly not to treat this issue as one of great urgency. Business as usual is a recipe for disaster.

It is important, however, in considering options for social change, to be aware of certain impediments that stand in the way of the kind of reforms that will be necessary for the achievement of ecological sustainability. These are:

1. Consumption addiction. In our present cultural setting, human health and well-being appear to be largely dependent on the current extraordinarily high rates of consumption, and any significant drop in the material standard of living would interfere with the satisfaction of a number of basic health needs. These needs, however, have been satisfied in other cultural settings without high rates of material consumption.

Furthermore, the cultural arrangements of our society (e.g. the economic system and the occupational structure of the population) dictate that when there is not enough work to keep everyone busy for 40 hours a week, we have to try artificially to create more work in order to provide employment for the unemployed. This inevitably means further increases in the intensity of resource and energy use and waste production. The cultural arrangements of our society seem to leave no scope for the much more rational approach of redistributing the existing work load in such a way that all members of the labour force work for rather fewer hours per week, so that employment is available for all who want it.

2. Vested interests. Any attempt by authorities to change the patterns of production and consumption in accord with the needs of the biosphere will be vigorously countered by groups who fear that such moves would interfere with their financial interests. This blocking response is understandable and entirely predictable. It is also a major impediment to attempts to restore ecological balance between human society and the ecosystems of the biosphere.

3. The dominant culture. Most important of all, the assumptions of the dominant culture of our society, and its values and priorities, are not consistent with a significant reduction in the intensity of resource and energy use.

For example, because of these assumptions, the adherents of the dominant culture are forced to conclude that the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others who draw attention to the nature of the ecological predicament, must be wrong, and that they are therefore to be ridiculed, or at least ignored.

I share the view with many colleagues that the necessary changes in the patterns of extraction, production, consumption and pollution will not be achieved unless or until there comes about a fundamental change in the dominant culture of our society, involving a greatly increased understanding, at the core of this culture, of the processes of life and of the human place in the biosphere, associated with a greatly increased respect for nature and for other humans as a part of nature.

To illustrate the degree of the change that will be necessary in the cultural system, I will conclude with a piece of somewhat fanciful and optimistic speculation about the political scene at some time in the future. I suggest that an Australian Government in, say, 20 years from now, might, in seeking re-election, proudly point out that during its term of office there had been:

  1. a marked improvement in health in all sections of the community, associated with a progressive shift towards social equity; and
  2. a big drop in fossil fuel use, industrial production, retail consumption and waste production.

Ecologically, and in terms of human well-being, both these trends would make very good sense.


Newcombe, K. 1976. A brief history of concepts of energy and the rise of energy use by humankind. Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University.

International Panel on Climate Change. 1990. Scientific assessment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Union of Concerned Scientists. 1992. World's scientists' warning to humanity. Union of Concerned Scientists. Washington. D.C.

WCED. World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories Logo