Consuming Differently

On the Dutch Postcode Lottery challenge website, Sir Richard Branson states in a video that "if we are not going consume less, we should consume differently." While, at first glance, this may appear to be an excuse to continue his flamboyant, over consuming lifestyle, there are many depths to be plumbed in that statement.

Consider these two facts:
1) One-third of the ice-free land area of the planet or 12 billion acres of land is being used for livestock production.
2) One-fourth of humanity consume almost all of that livestock output.
Many people conclude from these two facts that the world faces a huge population problem. If the remaining three-fourths of humanity wish to consume livestock products at the same rate, then there is not enough land on the planet to support their appetites. Indeed, as the 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment estimated, if everyone consumed like an American does today, our planet can support at most 1 billion human beings sustainably. Therefore, 6 out of every 7 human beings would need to disappear in order for the planet to sustainably support the remaining 1 billion human beings in such a lifestyle. What is left unsaid is how such a solution can be implemented without resorting to Hitler-like "Lebensraum"-seeking tactics. Some religious types expect God to impose such a solution through a series of disasters, while the chosen billion wait for their "reward" at the end of the carnage. Of course, if the chosen billion continue to increase their consumption each year, then there needs to be a commensurate reduction in population engineered each year to maintain the sustainability of the solution, keeping God continuously busy.

A friend of mine, Jeff Huggins, had a beautiful analogy for humanity's predicament. Imagine the Sapiens family of 7 in a home facing the flames of an oncoming brush fire. Let's assume that 2 of those family members are pregnant and are expected to give birth soon. In that situation, should the family be deciding as to which member escapes from the house carrying all the material wealth in the family car, while the remaining 6 are left to burn? Or should the family try and save every one of its members? An ethical family would load not only the 7 members of the family, but all the pets as well in the family car and drive away from the fire. It is the material wealth of the family that would be left to burn, not the living members of the family.

To put this in Sir Richard's parlance, the select one-fourth of humanity which is consuming all those livestock products could choose to "consume differently", so that life on the planet may survive. If humans stop consuming animal products, then it will free up most of the 12 billion acres to be returned to the earth, which would be a tremendous boon to wildlife and bio-diversity. Fishing fleets would disappear from the sea, which would allow ocean life to resuscitate from its current stifling suffocation. As life regenerates, carbon gets sequestered naturally thus mitigating climate change. Indeed, if even half of the land currently used for livestock production worldwide were converted back into forest, and if that forested land sequestered just one quarter of the carbon that is stored in the native Amazon per acre, the resulting carbon sequestration would offset the next thirty to forty years of anthropogenic CO2 emissions worldwide. The net result would clearly be a vastly richer planet to bequeath to future generations. The PB&J campaign is aimed to convince people that "consuming differently" is not about deprivation and can actually be quite delicious.

Pursuing this train of thought with respect to our energy infrastructure, humanity requires a 16 Tera Watt energy source to supply its operational needs. At present most of that energy is obtained by digging up fossil fuels, transporting them on trains, ships and pipelines over long distances and burning them to release that stored energy. Every aspect of this vast, global endeavor has a grimy, Neanderthal-like quality, which probably explains why intelligent extra-terrestrials have not contacted us yet. There is more energy falling on earth in the form of sunlight in one hour than humans use all year. Therefore, any self-respecting human civilization ought to stop disinterring ancient life and returning it to the atmosphere and should start tapping all that free falling energy instead. Then, even if human energy requirements double or triple over time, we won't be digging out and burning up fossil fuels ever more furiously and essentially burning ourselves to a crisp with global warming. Once again, rather than being primarily a question of consuming less, it is that of "consuming differently".

Thank you, Sir Richard! But, please consider consuming less, because if everyone consumed like you, could the planet support even a million individuals sustainably?