It is unsustainable consumption that causes the most damage to our planet. Image adapted from: suketdedhia; CC0

It’s time for a rethink …

The real cost of all that shopping

It’s easy to lay the blame for Earth’s environmental problems at the feet of populous developing countries. Easy … but not accurate. While poverty and environmental degradation are closely interrelated, it is actually the unsustainable patterns of production and consumption—primarily in developed, westernised nations—that is causing the most damage to our planet.

It’s not often that we stop and consider our own levels of consumption. For many of us, it’s just a part of our lives and culture, promoted not only by advertisers but also by governments wanting to continually grow their economy.

Participating in consumer culture to excess and with no consideration of the consequences is harming both the planet and our emotional wellbeing.

The mass production of goods, many of them unnecessary for a comfortable life (banana slicer anyone?), is using large amounts of energy, creating excess pollution, and generating unmanageable amounts of waste.

On a global scale, not all humans are equally responsible for environmental harm. Consumption patterns and resource use are very high in some parts of the world, while in others—often in countries with far more people—they are low. A study undertaken in 2009 showed that the countries with the fastest population growth also had the slowest increases in carbon emissions.

When Australian consumption is viewed from a global perspective, we leave an exceptionally large 'ecological footprint'—one of the largest in the world. The ecological footprint is a standardised measure of how much productive land and water is needed to produce the resources that are consumed, and to absorb the wastes produced, by a person or group of people.

While the average global footprint is 2.7 global hectares, in 2014 Australia's was calculated at 7.7 global hectares per person (this large number is mostly due to our carbon emissions). To put this in perspective, if the rest of world lived as we do in Australia, we would need the equivalent of 3.6 Earths to meet the demand.

Similarly, a United States resident has an ecological footprint almost 9 times larger than an Indian resident—so while the population of India far exceeds that of the United States, in terms of environmental damage it is the US consumption of resources that is causing the higher level of damage to the planet.

We all live on Earth and our planet’s declining environmental health is everyone’s problem. Rather than blaming developing countries, take a moment to consider your part in the problem, and how you could become part of the solution.

This article was adapted from Academy website content reviewed by the following experts: Professor Stephen Dovers FASSA Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Professor Colin Butler Centre for Research and Action in Public Health, University of Canberra