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Sustainable Consumption? 

by Attila Gyenis

sustain verb [<L. sub-, under + tenere, hold] 1. to keep in existence: maintain or prolong 2. to provide nourishment for 3. to support; carry the weight 4. to endure; withstand

consume verb [<L. com-, together + sumere, take] 1. to destroy, as by fire 2. to use up (time, money etc.) 3. to eat or drink up

Is ësustainable consumptioní an oxymoron? We can think in terms of having either sustainable consumption or unsustainable consumption. Decide for yourself which we have and whatís possible, after considering my points.

Contrary to what the corporate media would want you to believe, there is a natural limit to how much our society can safely and sustainably consume. That limit is governed not by the dollars in your pocket, but by the natural capacity of the planet. The Earth has a finite amount of natural resources. No amount of money can change that fact. Oh yes, through some expensive process we could perhaps change all the coal into diamonds, but after the coal runs out you will still find that you are limited by the earthís (diminished) capacity. And having a pocketful of diamonds wonít help you if you donít have clean air or safe drinking water.

The first realization: we cannot continue to think we have an unlimited amount of natural resources.

Hereís how you consume natural resources. Every time you buy something, you are consuming resources. Every time you turn on a light you are consuming resources. Every time you get something to eat or drink. Your house, your clothes, your food, your water, your SUV, and your shampoo all result in the depletion of natural resources. You may not even be aware of all the natural resources that you are using on a daily basis. There are very few human activities that donít consume natural resources. This is not to imply that consumption in itself is a bad thing (unless there are too many consumers, which there are). But we do have to be aware that each of us is personally contributing to the consumption of natural resources in almost every one of our activities. Even animals and plants consume. So donít feel badóbut read on.


Why canít the capitalist system provide a nice technofix so that we could have unlimited resources? Nice try. Everything that you consume started from a natural resource. Even chemicals and plastics started from a natural resource. All technofixes do is to substitute one resource for another. Oil is a limited resource and you may try substituting grain ethanol, but you are still limited as to how much grain you can grow on the planet. They are both limited, even though there may be more of one resource than the other.

Some people continue to have the mistaken belief that we would somehow have enough oil to do whatever we want if we all switch to hybrid cars. Or that our energy concerns would be eliminated if we switch to fluorescent light bulbs. Or that through genetic modification, we can grow enough food to meet the ever-growing demand of our increasing population.

While conservation and certain technological changes are desirable and necessary in order to attain a sustainable society, they will not provide a ëgreení fix that will allow for unlimited consumption.

The second realization: we will not be able find a technological fix that will allow us to consume unlimited resources.

Renewable Resources

Some members of society like to point out that there are some natural resources that are renewable. Examples of renewable resources include trees, food products, water, fish, etc.

Are there renewable resources that are unlimited? Is it true that you can have unlimited sustainable production? Solar power is a renewable resource. Everyday there is a new supply of solar energy hitting the earth. But it is a finite amount of solar energy each day. If you are asking if renewable resources will allow you to consume as much as you want, the answer is still no. We cannot consume more solar energy than hits the earth each day.

Yet today we consume ten times the amount of usable solar energy hitting Earth for photosynthesis, by drawing down Earthís capital in the form of fossil fuels (consisting of prior photosynthesis), according to William Cattonís book Overshoot.

There is also a limit to the rate at which other natural resources renew themselves. Unfortunately, some industries continue to imply that ërenewableí resources are unlimited. The keyword here is sustainable. If you use the resource at a rate faster than it renews itself, you will eventually deplete that resource. If you catch fish faster than they reproduce, you will eventually catch the last remaining fish.

Here in Northern California, we see that there are less than 5% of the original Redwood forests remaining, and they are still being cut. If these companies were in fact operating at a sustainable rate, they wouldnít have to be cutting 1,000 year old Redwood trees in virgin forests.

It is not always easy to determine what is a sustainable rate of consumption for a particular resource. Trees grow at a certain rate each year, based on the limitations of rain, sun, and other conditions. When community members insist on sustainable logging, they are implying that only that amount of trees should be cut that actually grow back every year. An example would be if a particular forest grows 1% every year, that in a 10 year period no more than 10% of the forest would be cut. This way over a 100 year period, the total amount of trees in that forest would remain the same.

Of course, the trees are not the only consideration to determine the sustainability of the forestís ecosystem. It is possible that while the trees are sustainable if you cut 10% every 10 years, there may be other animal or plant species within the forestís ecosystem that would be adversely effected if you were to cut that amount. As a result, the true maximum amount that could be sustainably cut to ensure a viable forest ecology might only be, say, 5% - 7%.

Renewable resources must be the major component of a sustainable economy, but it should not be confused as unlimited resources. And donít be fooled when some industries point to the remaining resources as proof that they are operating at a sustainable level. Currently, there are very few industries that ëharvestí renewable resources (timber, fish etc.) at a sustainable rate.

The third realization: the term ërenewableí resource does not imply it is an ëunlimitedí resource.

"Abundant" Resources

Another term frequently used is ëabundant.í It implies that there is a surplus of that resource. The fishing industry and the oil industry seem to use the term frequently. As proof of their contention, they point to the ëabundanceí of their catch.

We have seen several times throughout history how industry has turned an abundance of a natural resource into the extinction of that resource. Fish and oil are a little different, in that fish are at least a renewable resource, where oil is a finite amount, on its way to being depleted.

In John Steinbeckís Cannery Row, we see a whole sardine industry develop in Monterey, California. Its only purpose was to catch and can sardinesóuntil they ran out of fish. Today, it is being repeated with several other fish species. We need to ask ourselves, what does ëabundantí mean? Maybe when we see a large number of fish, it is actually the amount needed for the species to survive. It certainly shouldnít be seen as a license to help yourself to as much as you want. We know that when a species falls below a certain number, that it is headed for extinction. It is an outdated notion that we only need the last 2 of a species to repopulate the world. By the last two, it is too late.

Then we have the oil industry that is slowly draining the planet of all available oil, with devastating effects both during its extraction, as well as during the use of the product in cars. They want us to continue using oil, never raising the price quite high enough to make us stop driving. Or maybe we are so delighted with the supposed convenience the car offers that we refuse to worry about the global warming consequence of our driving. In either case, we are dependent upon a resource that is clearly limited, yet the oil industry wants to convince us that there is an abundant supply, and all they have to do is drill a hole for it in places like the Arctic refuge.

The fourth realization: resources that we are led to believe as being abundant are in fact limited.


Everybody is familiar with Einsteinís E =mc2. The total energy in the universe can be neither created or destroyed. A basic definition of entropy is that while the quantity of energy never decreases, the quality does decrease as it is being used.

Resources from which we get energy can be changed from a useful state to a useless state. An example would be a piece of wood. Before it is burned, it stores energy that is useful on a cold day. By lighting it up, we are able to release itís energy and heat our room. But once the wood has burned, the remaining ashes are no longer useful for us as a source of energy. This is an example of entropy. In this context, we must understand that not only is the total amount of energy available on our planet limited, but that the amount available is actually reduced every time we use energy.

The concept of entropy doesnít just apply to energy. It can apply to any natural resource. We take many natural resources and turn them into something that are no longer useful. Many consumed products end up in landfills. This includes paper products, plastic wrap, computers, and other electronic toys we have gotten tired of. By consuming these products, we are slowly turning our planetís resources into useless heaps of garbage.

The fifth realization: when we use a natural resource, we may turn it into something useless through entropy.


In order to find a solution, we must first understand the problem. We have a culture that desires unlimited consumption, but we live on a planet with limited resources. No amount of techno-fixing or ëgreeningí will change that premise. People may think this is a dilemma, but it is not. It is just the way it is.

Is it possible to have sustainable consumption? Letís hope so. Clearly, we cannot depend upon government or industry to ensure that companies produce at a sustainable level. We must also realize that society as a whole is more concerned with being entertained than with the consequences of their actions. Any culture change will first have to overcome the inertia of 10,000 years building to unsustainable consumption. So how is this culture change going to come about (if it will at all)?

We will have to completely revamp societyís priorities. We will have to fundamentally change how social, political, and corporate decisions are made. We need a vision where the needs of the people and the planet are placed ahead of individuals and corporations. Where our government sends in an army not to protect the financial interests of oil companies, but to ensure the protection of environmental resources. Where a politician talks first about protecting safe drinking water, and only afterwards about jobs. (Is good government an oxymoron? - ed.) Where a corporate board member talks not about the cheapest place to manufacture a product, but about the safety, health, and environmental standards he requires before signing any contract. Where we understand that as a society, we cannot consume more that the natural limits of the planet, and that this responsibility extends to each of us individually.

A sustainable society may need to question whether we allow corporations for profit to exist at all.

Are we doing anything right? Yes: recycling, conservation, organic foods, local economiesóall are steps in the right direction. We desire to maintain a high quality of life and we try do it not only for our personal benefit, but for the benefit of all people and future generations.

But we need to see more than just a shift in the mainstream. This message is not a call for an alternative way of living. This is a call for a new dominant paradigm. It is a call for a new social order. It requires society to evolve. If we do not embrace these ideas as a society, then we have failed as a society. These steps are essential for our survival as a species.

But before change can happen, two realizations must occur to us as a society. First, we must be aware of our actions, and recognize the folly of our overconsuming culture. Second, we must desire within ourselves to make a change. Only then will we seek the information and tools necessary to make the culture change for a sustainable society.

Attila Gyenis is an editor of Culture Change, a forest activist, bookseller, and songwriter.

Culture Change mailing address: P.O. Box 3387 , Santa Cruz , California 95063 USA
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Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit organization.