By: Chris Burke
Canadian environmentalists have long argued that many of today’s environmental issues can be blamed on the overconsumption habits of the average Canadian citizen. They cite data suggesting that we would need more than one Earth to sustain the current Canadian lifestyle. As a solution to the impending environmental crisis they advocate for a reduction in consumption, but this is a flawed solution. Advocating for a reduction in consumption and a greening of consumer habits is not a bad thing. The fact that there is an interest for this change in lifestyle is encouraging as it indicates that many are concerned about the current state of the environment and want to do something about it but, as I will argue in this post, the blame for overconsumption lies with industry not with the consumer. The average Canadian consumer could reduce their carbon footprint to zero, and it would be enough to bring about the reductions needed to stave off runaway climate change.
There’s no doubt that the global North consumes on a level that is completely out of proportion to its actual needs when compared with the global South. Environmentalists are correct in pointing out the massive differences in North and South consumption, but from here their argument starts to weaken. When they begin to focus on the consumption levels of the average consumer, they start to go down some misleading roads. The point that environmentalists often miss is that inequalities in consumption levels exist in the countries that make up the North.
“The average consumer” is a misleading term. The numbers environmentalists cite to demonstrate that absurd levels of waste and consumption exist in the North are often calculated in a manner that factors in the waste and consumption of industrial processes. The “average” is sometimes misunderstood. It cannot always be used to draw a reliable conclusion. How the average was calculated must be known. In this case, the average is heavily skewed making the average consumption of your everyday consumer look worse than it actually is. Other way to think of this is to picture a neighbourhood where four people make $50,000/year and 1 person makes $1,000,000,000/year. The average early earning is $200,040,000. The data shows that this figure is misleading, but if you didn’t have that data you’d never know and would assume that this is a very wealthy neighbourhood. Likewise with consumption and waste levels, we think that the average consumer is an overly affluent individual consuming more than what the planet can sustain. However, the industry numbers skew the data.
Another example of misleading numbers comes from the book Too Many People?: Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Angus, Butler, Hartmann, and Kovel, 2011). In 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from “Residential” sources were 15%. Yet, as Angus, et al (2011) point out, these emissions include those produced from natural gas and electrical providers i.e. The emissions are not being produced by your average resident. There are more examples like this, but space here is limited. Readers of this blog are encouraged to ask for more information on this topic.
How has it come to this? If the numbers demonstrate that consumers are not to blame, then why has the environmental movement become so focused on creating green consumers? That’s the question I want to leave readers with for now. Another post will be up on the blog shortly in which I will provide my own answer to that question.