Reflections on our Planetary Wellbeing and the Complexities of Consumption

Consumption is part of our nature, from the moment we are born we consume resources to satisfy our needs. However, in the last decades, the concept has evolved: Higher incomes, access to credit, advertising, cheap prices, cultural norms and our capitalistic system have created a culture of consumerism.

Have you ever paused and reflected about your personal impact on our planetary wellbeing? How our daily choices shape not only our lives but also how their consequences directly affect our planet. While the global debates revolve around issues like climate change, depletion of resources, and limits to waste absorption and pollution, it compels me to question: Do we all share the same responsibility in this planetary challenge?

Consumption is part of our human nature, from the moment we are born we consume resources to satisfy our needs and to ensure survival. But although consumption is rooted in our nature (1), in the last decades, the concept has evolved. Higher incomes, access to credit, advertising, cheap prices, cultural norms and our capitalistic system, where consumption keeps the economy running, have created a culture of consumerism. Now we not only consume for survival or to satisfy a need, but as Miles (2) aptly puts it “while consumption is an act, consumerism is a way of life”. Considering that the things we consume are made of resources, and limited resources are extracted from our planet, it prompts another question: How are our consumption patterns affecting our limited world?

One way to measure the impact of consumption on the environment is considering the material footprint. The material footprint is one indicator of the pressure placed on the environment to support economic growth, it refers to the total amount of raw materials extracted to meet the final consumption demands. According to a report from the United Nations (2019) the global material Footprint increased from 43 billion metric tons in 1990 to 54 billion in 2000, and to 92 billion in 2017. This means an increase of 70% since 2000, and 113% since 1990.  Moreover, in a recent article published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (3) the world´s material Footprint currently is approximately 100 billion tons annually and without unified political measures, it is projected to double by 2060. Yet, these trends are impossible to sustain in a world with limited resources.

While it would be easier to infer that “more people = more depletion of resources = less planetary wellbeing” the relationship between consumption, population growth and Earth's carrying capacity is not linear and more complex than that. The idea behind that consumption is just driven by population growth is not new. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1972 (4) already raised some red flags about population growth and limited world resources. In this report severe food and non-renewable resources shortages were predicted by the middle of the 21st century. While it is accurate to state that more people require more resources, different studies seem to differ about the accurate number of people that our planet can actually support.

According to Dovers and Butler (5), studies show that the amount of people our planet can support ranges from 500 million to 1 trillion. So, how can different studies differ so much from each other? One of the main reasons relies on consumption rates. People in the world consume resources at different rates and very unevenly. The same authors stated that the average middle-class American consumes approximately 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and around 250 times the subsistence level of clean water. In this sense, if every person in the world lived like a middle-class American, the earth could support around 2 billion people. Therefore, it could be argued that while the number of people that inhabit the earth and population growth represent factors that put pressure on resources, consumption rates also play a determinant role in the earth's carrying capacity.

This shift in focus shows a reality that quite often is overlooked, not every one of us bears the same responsibility in terms of impacts of our consumption choices. An Oxfam´s report (6) stated that between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10% of the world's population accounted for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions. Countries with higher incomes play a key role not only in driving consumption but also in putting more pressure on the environment with worldwide effects.

More affluent countries are consuming at rates that are not only impossible to sustain in time but to replicate in other countries. If we aim to achieve planetary wellbeing, it is important to tackle issues that are affecting this wellbeing. Some of these key issues are overconsumption, unsustainable business models, and lifestyles that are too dependent on the Earth's Resources, posing unfair consequences for the rest of the world.

In essence, in order to understand and address the impact our consumption has on our planetary well-being, a new perspective is needed. This perspective must go beyond current trends that promote the consumption of “eco-product” or “better products”. It also needs to acknowledge the discrepancies in consumption among countries and therefore its far-reaching implications and impacts. The depletion of resources, waste pollution and emissions along with global inequalities play a key role in shaping daily choices and consumption patterns in different parts of the world.

To create more sustainable and fair consumption patterns, changes at social and cultural level need to be introduced. These interventions might look different in different parts of the world. We not only need to understand what measures work, but where and for whom. While in developed countries efforts should be made  to curb current consumption patterns, and to consume less, in developing countries a consumption aligned to promote planetary wellbeing might focus on education, improvement of production practices, payment for environmental services to protect ecosystems, and the creation of infrastructure.

For this, different actors in society have different roles to play, governments, policy makers, businesses, and of course consumers. But without acknowledging these differences, dependencies, and own responsibilities in resource depletion, a planetary wellbeing will remain a challenge and impossible to achieve.

Author: Cecilia Gabutti


W.E. Rees (2006), Consumption & Happiness Alternative Approaches & W. E. Rees, (2008), Human Nature, eco-footprints and environmental justice. 

(1)   Miles, S. (1998), Consumerism as a way of life. Published by SAGE Publications, UK.

(2)   United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), (2023) 

(3)   Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), (1972) The limits to Growth.

(4)   Dovers, S. and Butler, C. (2015) Population and environment: A global challenge

(5)   Oxfam´s report (2020) Confronting Carbon inequality. Published by Oxfam

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