I’m often faced with the question, “Yes, but what can we do?”. It’s usually followed by some kind of sigh. Hrmph.
People who know me know that I mull a lot about the things that need something to be done about them. Threatened species. Wildlife trafficking. Climate change. Pollution. Junky and wasteful food habits. And so on and so forth.
The problem is that most of these things seem very far removed from us and our lives and, especially, our daily choices. Usually, the conversations come down to statements like this:
“The government should have stepped in sooner”
“The issues were obvious 50 years ago”
“Those multinationals are greedy scumbags”
“We’re too far gone”
These kinds of thoughts embody blame and hopelessness.
But the fact of the matter is this: most of these problems, fundamentally, are about resources.
In that capacity, we have one obvious thing to do: consume less. It’s the most important thing you can do, every single day of your life. I go so far as to say it is our very responsibility, as conscious resource-consuming humans, to consume mindfully and to consume less.
You see, everything you consume comes with an energy cost. Take your daily cup of coffee, as an example. Seems innocent enough. Since you’re a planet-conscious citizen, you’ve already ditched your past disposable-cup habits, now religiously carrying your KeepCup at all times (go you!).
Your barista gives you your daily grind. First, she takes the coffee beans. Now those beans have a long story. Coffee is big business, obviously. It’s one of the most traded commodities in the world (some say it’s second only to crude oil), consuming huge amounts of energy to get from tree to bean to cup.
The mass production of coffee requires loads of fossil fuels. There are the costs that go into the physical farming of the crops. The synthetic fertilisers. The machinery. The extra land that is required to grow more. The “efficiencies” that need to happen to keep up supply, to scale. Resources, resources, resources.
Coffee only grows in a few tropical places in the world (it’s fussy about its climate), which are usually areas of high biodiversity. Tropical forests in these biologically-rich areas are cleared to pave the way for our coffee addiction. Sad but true.
Growing coffee in tropical regions also means that the beans ground for your morning cuppa were probably shipped from very far away. That shipping required a lot of fossil fuels. It probably travelled by plane, which is a very fossil fuel-hungry mode of transport. That plane needed to be built from fossil fuel resources too, and it needed to use the services of airports, which are also very energy intensive. The coffee then got trucked off to many various companies for processing into their specific product, requiring yet more resources.
To be fair, you choose certified sustainable, shade-grown coffee. This means your cup is doing things a bit better in terms of water quality, forest conservation and biodiversity (e.g. birdlife), and probably supports better economic returns for the farmers too.
Then the barista heats your milk. The cows that produced that milk live on farms some hundreds of kilometres away. They were grazed on grass but also fed some grain to keep up their dietary needs. That grain was grown on some beautifully rich soil in an area that once housed incredible biodiversity. The grain also needed fertiliser and machinery. That grain was then transported by truck to the dairy farm for the cows’ gustatory pleasure. The cows were milked by electric machines, and the milk went into plastic bottles, trucked a couple hundred or thousand kilometres to be dispatched through various plants, and eventually it ended up in your barista’s hands.
Your barista heats the milk, using a machine that requires electricity to operate. Perfectly, she combines the coffee and milk in your KeepCup, and you’re on your way. The KeepCup, though reusable, is made of glass and plastic. That glass was made from mined sand and the plastic from fossil fuels. Are you getting my drift?
All that just for a cup of coffee!* Imagine if we had the breakdown of everything we consume in a day. Mind-boggling stuff, if I say so myself.
The fancy term for this kind of breakdown (done in a much more rigorous, accurate and quantitative manner) is a Life Cycle Analysis. These analyses are meant to compare apples with apples so that better decisions can be made. It has its flaws, yes (that’s another discussion), but what it does best is that it makes us think about all the many components that go into the things we consume. The enormity of things to which we usually turn a blind eye.
So, by consuming less we are averting energetic costs and saving resources, little by little, day by day. This means less land needs to be cleared for crops, fewer species lose their home, fewer fossil fuels are burned, less carbon goes into the atmosphere, less water is used, less fertiliser will be produced, less transport is needed, etcetera etcetera.
So that’s it. Consume less. Of everything. That’s a really simple, tangible thing you can do every day to make the world a better place.
* To be clear, I love my coffee and I drink it most days. Nothing about this life cycle of coffee means I think we should skip it altogether. What I’m saying is that we need to be aware of the resource costs of our daily habits. We can then make better decisions about what we do to have the best overall effect that we can. I like to remember the quote “Little by little, a little becomes a lot”.