Discover your Standard
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” – Henry David Thoreau
In November 2017, the Trump Administration approved the release of an “exhaustive scientific report” released by 13 federal agencies, which declares that humans are the “dominant cause of the global temperature rise.”1 This report reinforces decades of research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Global temperature rise is a very big problem, but its not the only serious environmental issue. To see a list of environmental issues, click here.
We cannot afford to carry on as usual, expecting governments to act in the best interest of people. We cannot afford to let corporate interests determine the condition of our planet. As consumers, we have the power to shape industry, by deciding which products we will and will not buy.
For many Americans, the view outside their window remains unchanged. It’s hard to fathom that our way of life is wreaking havoc on the planet, but then destinations, such as Norilsk, Russia; La Oroya, Peru; Sukinda, India; Vapi, India; and the Citarum River in Indonesia, probably don’t appear often on the typical American travel itinerary. These locations are areas of heavy mining, chemical production, and textile manufacturing for products sent all of the world, and are among the most polluted places on Earth. The reality is, members of the developed nations typically have no clue where their products come from, nor what is involved in creating those products.
Let’s use palm oil as an example. Palm oil is found in many of the products in our homes, including, but not limited to, lipstick, pizza, instant noodles, shampoo, ice cream, detergent, chocolate, and packaged bread.2 Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and the country is rapidly clearcutting its forests to make way for palm oil plantations. In Sumatra, these forests provide critical habitat for several of the world’s most charismatic wildlife species, including Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran elephants. All four of these species are critically endangered as a consequence of deforestation to enhance palm oil production.
Deforestation for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. Image Credit: National Geographic
Discovering your Standard of Living
Standard of living (SL) is technically defined as:
- “the level of wealth, comfort, material goods and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class or a certain geographic area.” 3
- the “financial health of a population, as measured by per capita income and consumption of goods and services by individuals or households.” 4
I believe that understanding the effect of a standard of living on a society requires an examination of the elements that comprise it. The SL is a constantly evolving concept. Every innovation, every invention, every knew product or service to hit the market, redefines the SL.
When the automobile replaced the horse and carriage, the SL evolved. When televisions replaced radios, the SL evolved. When the new year brings the newest models of bicycles, motorcycles, or cars, the SL evolves. When a new model of the Apple iPhone or Google Android comes to market, the SL evolves. When Internet speed, or cell service increases, the SL evolves. When Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram redefined communication, the SL evolved. When YouTube, and Vimeo, and Hulu, and Funny or die, and Netflix, and Amazon Video, and Red Bull TV emerged to provide endless entertainment, the SL evolved.
Keeping up with the current standard of living, is the “rat race” of the idealized American way of life. It’s the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses.” The pursuit of the SL fuels overconsumption, and when combined with overpopulation, is the predominant cause of environmental degradation, and a driving force in climate change.
If we (Americans) want to do our part in moving society towards a sustainable existence, we must embrace a sustainable standard of living.
Why is this critical?
“A child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil.” 5
“With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” “Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world.” “The U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations.”6
Why is this level of consumption a problem?
Scientists assess the Earth’s capacity to produce the biological materials necessary to sustain life using a measure termed “biological capacity” (biocapacity). With this method, an area’s production capacity is compared against its ecological footprint to determine deficits and reserves.7
Currently, human demand for the Earth’s resources is surpassing its annual capacity to produce them.8 The day on which human consumption exceeds the annual biological capacity is termed “Earth overshoot day.” In a balanced system, Earth overshoot day (EOD) would occur after December 31st, meaning that, each year the planet is producing more biological resources than humans are consuming. However, since 1970, EOD has progressed steadily to earlier points within the year. In 1970, EOD came on December 23rd.9 In 2017, EOD occurred on August 2nd.10
According to the Global Footprint Network, current annual consumption of biological resources requires the biocapacity of 1.6 Earths.11 However, if everyone on Earth achieved the same level of consumption as Americans, the biocapacity of nearly 4 Earths would be required to meet demand.12
Does all this consumption actually make us happier?
Contrary to what advertisers lead us to believe, we do not need every new modern marvel to have a wonderful and fulfilling life. We can live vastly simpler lives, consuming far less, while at the same time improving our quality of life.
I once read in a book on international development, that studies have shown that once basic human needs are met, increases in SL do not necessarily correlate to increases in quality of life. To expand on this point, in his book, “David and Goliath,” Malcom Gladwell writes, “The scholars who research happiness suggest that [in the United States] more money stops making people happier at a family income of around seventy-five thousand dollars a year. After that, what economists call ‘diminishing marginal returns’ sets in. If your family makes seventy-five thousand and your neighbor makes a hundred thousand, that extra twenty-five thousand a year means that your neighbor can drive a nicer car and go out to eat slightly more often. But it doesn’t make your neighbor happier than you…”
I believe that there is good reason to define our own standard of living. Rather than letting social expectations and corporate interests shape the condition of our lives, we can form our own way of existing. We can walk away from the “rat race” and start focusing on how to build a great life.
Building a Great Life
Enhancing quality of life, while working towards sustainability
I am no authority on how to build a great life. What constitutes a fulfilling way of living is subject to personal opinion. I can say, that extensive research has demonstrated that “experiential purchases are more satisfying than material purchases.”13 In other words, a life filled with wonderful experiences will be more gratifying than a life filled with material possessions. In achieving a sustainable human existence, this is good news! This means that we can absolutely improve the quality of our lives, while reducing our consumption of material items.
Simple Living and Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
Around the the world, many societies naturally embrace simple living, and in this way, their average, per capita, carbon footprint is low. However, in many westernized societies, and America in particular, excessive and obsessive consumption is a way of life. As increasing population spurs increasing demand for natural resources and threatens to intensify the effect of human activity on the planet, local, state, and federal governments will naturally increase regulation. Whether by choice or through increasing regulations, I believe the future of modern society will be characterized by simple and eco-friendly lifestyles. As cost of living increases, many people are already considering tiny or smaller, prefabricated, energy efficient homes.
Downsizing need not be seen as sacrificing. A smaller home can be a much nicer home. Money saved in building a smaller structure can be invested in higher quality materials, craftsmanship, furniture, and appliances, which all last longer, and extend the life and value of the home. Indeed, a small home can be more unique and more representative of your own character. Additionally, utility expenses are generally less with a smaller home. The savings of simple living can provide substantial financial security for retirement, or healthcare expenses. Lastly, leading a smaller material life enables more frequent and substantial experiential purchases.
Image Credit: Photo by eulauretta on Unsplash
The Internet is loaded with articles on how to simply your life and/or reduce your carbon footprint. If you are interested in learning more, I have provided a couple links here to get you started.
How to Reduce Your Family’s Carbon Footprint Source: HuffPost
16 Ways to Simplify Your Life Source: HuffPost
Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life Source: Zen Habits
Current Environmental Issues
A summarized list of environmental issues is provided here. Please see wikipedia for a more comprehensive List of Environmental Issues.
- Over population
- Exceeding the planet’s biocapacity
- Climate change
- global warming
- Glacial melt
- Sea level rise
- Ocean acidification
- Environmental degradation
- Habitat destruction
- Invasive species
- 6th mass extinction
- Air pollution
- Soil pollution
- Water pollution
- Chemical pollution
- Plastics pollution
- Resource depletion
- Overconsumption of natural resources
- Overfishing, shark finning, and depletion of marine resources
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Toxic heavy metals
- Volatile organic compounds
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
- Electronic waste
12 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712 & https://www.footprintnetwork.org/