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You are here: Home / Signals — well-being and the environment / Signals 2012 / Articles / Living in a consumer society

Living in a consumer society

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Decades of relatively steady growth in Europe have changed the way we live. We produce and consume more goods and services. We travel more and live longer. But the environmental impacts of our economic activities at home and abroad have become bigger and more visible. Environmental legislation, when implemented thoroughly, achieves results on the ground. After taking a look at what has changed in the last twenty years, however, can we say that we are doing our best
Consumer choices

Consumer choices  Image © Thinkstock

When Carlos Sánchez was born in 1989, almost 5 million people lived in the larger Madrid metropolitan area. Carlos’s family lived in a two-bedroom flat in the city centre; they did not have a car but had a television.

Carlos’s family was not the only Spanish family not to own a car then. In 1992, six years after joining the European Union, Spain counted 332 passenger cars per 1 000 inhabitants. Nearly two decades later, in 2009, 480 out of 1 000 Spaniards had cars, slightly above the European Union average.

When Carlos was five years old, the Sánchez family bought the flat next door and merged the two together. When he was eight, they bought their first car but it was second hand.

Ageing societies

It is not only our modes of transport that have changed. Our societies have changed too. With few exceptions, the number of children borne per woman has not changed significantly in the EU Member States with data spanning the last 20 years. Spanish women had 1.32 children on average in 1992 and in 2010 the figure had risen slightly to 1.39 - far below the generally accepted replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. The total fertility rate in EU-27 was around 1.5 in 2009.

Yet, the EU population is growing, mainly due to immigration. We also live longer and better. In 2006, EU life expectancy at birth stood at 76 years for men and 82 for women. At the end of October 2011, the world population reached 7 billion. Despite the decline in fertility rates in the last two decades, the world population is expected to continue growing until stabilising at around 10 billion in 2100.

There is also an upward trend in urbanisation rates. More than half of the global population now lives in urban areas. In the EU, around three quarters live in urban areas. The effects are also visible in many European cities, including Madrid. The population in the greater Madrid area reached 6.3 million in 2011.

We grow our food in petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides. Most of our construction materials - cement, plastics and so on - are made of fossil fuels, as are most of our pharmaceutical products. Our clothes, for the most part, are made of petrochemical synthetic fibres. Our transport, power, heat, and light are all reliant on fossil fuels as well. We have built an entire civilisation on the exhumed carbon deposits of the Carboniferous Period.
…future generations living fifty thousand years from now… will likely characterise us as the fossil fuels people and this period as the Carbon Era, just as we have referred to past periods as the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends and adviser to the European Union. An excerpt from his book ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’

Growth everywhere

Coyright: Stockxpert.comIn these last two decades, Spain, very much like many other European countries, experienced steady economic growth, increased incomes and, until recently, what looked like a real solution to Spain’s unemployment problem. The economic boom was fuelled by readily available loans - public and private - an abundance of raw materials and an inflow of immigrants from Central and South America and Africa. 

When Carlos was born, besides a few interconnected IT networks, the Internet (as we know it today) did not exist. Mobile telephones were rare, cumbersome to carry around and unaffordable for most people. Online communities or social networks were unheard of. For many communities across the planet, ‘technology’ stood for reliable provision of electricity. Telephone was costly and not always accessible. Holidays abroad were only for the privileged few. 

Despite several downturns in the last 20 years, the European Union economy grew by 40 %, with slightly higher averages in countries that joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007. Construction linked to tourism was a particularly important driver in the Spanish case. In other European countries, economic growth was also triggered by sectors such as services and manufacturing. 

Today, Carlos lives with his parents at the same address. They each have a car and a mobile phone. The Sanchez family’s life style is not unusual by European standards.

Bigger global footprint

Europe’s impact on the environment has grown in parallel with economic growth both in Europe and the world. Trade has been instrumental in fostering prosperity in both Europe and developing countries, as well as in spreading the environmental impacts of our activities. 

In 2008, in terms of weight, the European Union imported six times more materials than it exported. The difference is almost entirely due to the high level of imports of fuel and mining products.

Policy works, if well designed and implemented

Growing global recognition of the urgent need to tackle environmental issues started much earlier than the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. EU environmental legislation dates back to the early 1970s and experience since then has demonstrated that, when implemented effectively, environmental legislation pays off. 

For example, the EU Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992) provide a legal framework for Europe’s protected areas. The European Union has now designated more than 17 % of its land area and more than 160 000 km2 offshore as part of its nature protection network, ‘Natura 2000’. Although many European species and habitats are still threatened, Natura 2000 is a vital step in the right direction. 

Other environmental policies have also had a positive impact on Europe’s environment. Ambient air quality has generally improved significantly in the last two decades. But long-range air pollution and some local air pollutants continue to affect our health. The quality of European waters has also improved substantially thanks to European legislation, but most pollutants released into air, water and land do not easily disappear. On the contrary, they accumulate. 

The European Union has also started to break the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions, however, continue to increase, contributing to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Copyright: ThinkstockThere is a similar trend in material use. The European economy produces more with less resource input. But we are still using far more resources than the European land mass and seas can provide us. The EU is still generating large amounts of waste but is recycling and re-using a growing share. 

Unfortunately, when we try to address one environmental problem, we realise that environmental issues cannot be tackled in isolation and one-by-one. They have to be integrated in economic policies, urban planning, fisheries and agricultural policies, so on.

Water extraction, for example, affects the quality and quantity of water at the source and downstream. As the water quantity at the source goes down because of higher extraction, pollutants released into water are less diluted and have a larger negative impact on species dependent on that water body. To be able to design and achieve significant improvements to water quality, we also need to address why the water is extracted in the first place.

Change in small steps

Despite the gaps in our knowledge, the environmental trends we see today call for decisive and immediate action involving policymakers, businesses and citizens. Under a business as usual scenario, global deforestation will continue at critical rates and average global temperatures could increase by as much as 6.4 °C by the end of the century. Sea level rise will put at risk one of our most valuable resources - land - in low lying islands and coastal zones.

International negotiations often take years to conclude and to implement. Well designed national legislation works when implemented fully but is limited by geopolitical boundaries. Many environmental issues are not confined within national borders. Ultimately, we may all feel the impacts of deforestation, air pollution or marine litter.

Trends and attitudes can be changed - step by step. We have a good understanding of where we were 20 years ago and where we stand today. We might not have one miraculous solution that will remedy all our environmental problems instantly, but we have an idea, actually a package of ideas, tools and policies, to help us transform our economy into a green one. The opportunity to build a sustainable future in the next 20 years is there for us to seize.

Copyright: EEA/Ace&Ace

Seizing the opportunity

Seizing the opportunity in front of us depends on our common awareness. We can create enough momentum to transform the way we live only by understanding what is at stake. Awareness is increasing but is not always sufficient. Economic insecurity, fears of unemployment and health concerns seem to dominate our day to day concerns. And it is no different for Carlos or his friends, especially given the economic turbulence in Europe. 

In between worries about his biology studies and career prospects, Carlos is not sure how aware his generation is of the environmental problems in Europe and the world. As an urban resident, however, he does recognise that his parents’ generation had a closer link to nature because, in most families, at least one of the parents was raised in the countryside. Even after they moved to the city for work, they maintained a closer relationship to nature. 

Copyright: Gülcin KaradenizCarlos may never have a similar connection to nature but he is quite keen on doing at least something — bicycling to his university. He has even convinced his father to cycle to work.

The fact is that economic insecurity, health, quality of life and even tackling unemployment all depend on ensuring a healthy planet. Rapid depletion of our natural resources and destroying the ecosystems that provide us so many benefits will hardly provide a secure and healthy future for Carlos or his generation. A green, low carbon economy remains the best and most viable option for ensuring economic and social prosperity in the long term.

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