Why Do We Over-consume?

Jared Diamond famously stated that “the biggest problems facing the world today are not at all beyond our control, rather they are all of our own making, and entirely in our power to deal with” when talking about his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Source: World Bank Development Indicators 2008

Source: World Bank Development Indicators 2008

But why have human ingenuity, technology, knowledge, and wealth grown step in step with unsustainability? If you compare the Human Development Index with resource use, we can see that as soon as countries meet the development standard of “high human development” they inevitably cross the line of unsustainability.

Opponents of this view will say that human well-being has on average increased in the world. However, while this is true, the indicators for species extinctions, habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion have all been negative for a prolonged period of time.

Personal consumption data is even more telling. When the richest 10 percent account for 60 percent of all private consumption, we have to ask ourselves if these top-tier consumers could possibly improve their well-being any further through material gains?

Back to our pre-modern roots

Researchers like E.O. Wilson explain this paradox with a theory rarely incorporated into decisions – evolution.

The characteristics of human behaviour that became fixed in our population through natural selection occurred over the 95 percent of our pre-modern existence where we lived in sparsely populated hunter-gatherer bands with local community connections. Then the resource problem was one of local access.

Early human societies had primitive and inefficient ways of collecting resources, so those that thrived were ones that developed high rates of consumption and new innovations for resource gathering. They also had built up strong identity with their own community and competitiveness with others, and short-term thinking (discounting the future).

Why do we always need more stuff?

Those characteristics endure today, in concrete but perhaps increasingly extraneous ways.

One of the basic human needs is food: the accumulation of which, along with other resources, is directly linked to the ability to reproduce and provide for a family. In pre-agricultural times, it was unlikely that a single family or tribe could gather enough food to make any further consumption undesirable, so there was little need for the evolution of a trait to limit consumption.

The second greatest human need was to secure a partner for reproduction. Unsurprisingly, it seems that those that could secure more resources through their hunting skills or status also had the best choice of mates. Research shows that women in all cultures, more than men, prefer partners with higher social status and that flaunting what you’ve got helps to seal the deal, so to speak.

Acquiring enough resources is not the end of it. Status is a comparative mark (dependent on one’s immediate peers), and relates to competition. Often cited research by the likes of J.F. Helliwell shows that happiness levels peak at an income level of $10,000 per year in the US, after which happiness is determined by one’s relative affluence.

Debate 2.0: Could investing in green jobs redeem the 1%?

The over-consumption pattern just gets more intense as we move up the social ladder. Photo: David Levitz.

That most of us want to earn more is therefore very well explained by sexual selection: the process of choosing a sexual partner.  Some individual male birds — a species whose mating relationships most resemble humans — will spend a great deal of energy building elaborate, colourful and useless displays on the forest floor to attract females. But in doing so they signal to the female counterpart that they get along just fine nonetheless: a sign of a healthy, capable individual.

Researchers think that people buy yachts, numerous cars and expensive jewelry in the same way. This over-consumption pattern just gets more intense as we move up the social ladder, and seems to have little to do with satisfying living needs. That is, when we become successful enough to own yachts and expensive cars, the absolute amount of possessions does not dull the drive to consume — because we tend to hang out with other people who own yachts and expensive cars and they put a damper on our relative status.

Today, advertising and marketing professionals exploit this drive, as they do many traits of human nature, to keep the consumption train going. This may in part explain the continued wealth disparities between individuals.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Competition is closely linked with consumption, as it produces social hierarchies among members of a group depending on their ability to secure resources. The idea of “us” and “them” was a very important one when humans lived in territorial bands and formed allegiances against common enemies.

Membership in a group provided security against aggression from other groups and means to cooperate. Internally, there was still a hierarchy that enabled the strong to control relationships and resources.

From the perspective of evolutionary fitness, the strongest individual had the opportunity to pass along the most genes, while receiving the protection of the group. Since evolutionary pressures act on individuals, competition and consumption do not have a shut-off point when the survival of the species is at stake, and there are many examples of human societies (think Easter Island) that likely competed themselves to extinction.

Today, we can look at political divisions to see how competing loyalties and different identities stall our efforts at cooperation. One reason why the United Nations organisation could not unanimously interfere in acts deplored by members (like genocide in Sudan or Rwanda) is that it is a collection of leaders whose allegiances lie elsewhere, such as with their in-group that provides security and shares commonalities like language, religion or culture.

In federal states like Canada, the national government has little power to enforce national policies in Alberta, where oil sand development is provincial jurisdiction, even though it may impact aboriginal communities falling under national protection. There inter-provincial and intergovernmental competition is a defining feature of that country’s politics.

Is it any wonder we are just now beginning to attempt to halt carbon dioxide emissions, nearly 20 years after the need was demonstrated?  How will any deal reached at COP15 in Copenhagen be implemented in countries with competing sub-national identities?

With new global problems like poverty, climate change and biodiversity loss, we are now being asked to be global citizens, and care about those we have never met, and areas we will never visit. This runs counter to our evolutionary past.

Evolution of culture and ideas

But are we slaves to our genes? No serious biologist believes that is the case regarding behaviour, we simply have genetic predispositions to do some things and not others. So the question is: how can we put our ingrained traits to benefit, or even overcome them?

There are certainly ways that human characteristics can be considered and utilised in working towards sustainable future paths.

The melting Antarctic ice sheet — no matter how bleak the images on TV — does not seem able to provoke wide enough behaviour change, because most of us can all go back to our daily lives, unaffected. Our individual interests have to be tapped to create the political support for implementing progressive ideas, and one way to do this is with money.  The recent call for rich nations to put up at least $10 billion a year to entice developing countries into an agreement at COP15 is a starter because dollars can easily be mentally translated into benefits.

Regulation can also be swallowed more easily with the aid of self-interest — like the very recent EPA announcement that GHGs are health dangers, clearing the way for laws restricting their release.

Environmental education for the world’s children is indispensible to nurturing an identity that recognises the intrinsic value of nature and equality of cultures. Photo: Woodley Wonderworks.

Other ways of playing to individual interests is through reputation — rewarding and shaming. Or by setting an extreme baseline for policy and then intermittently moving it back. For example, like closing the tuna fishery and then opening it back up slowly. Expectations for improvement from an undesirable baseline can be more acceptable than an unsustainable benefit with dire future predictions.

Another manner of influencing behaviour is perhaps the most obvious. Environmental education for the world’s children, that builds on human-nature relationships, is indispensible to nurturing an identity that recognises the intrinsic value of nature and equality of cultures.

Such education is bound to pay off. We often point to that which makes humans unique — our language, intelligence, art and culture — as the root of cultural evolution. In other words, the development and passing down of ideas and values by societies that have lots of spare time after they have met their livelihood needs.

There is evidence that shows we increasingly live for ourselves, forego reproduction, enjoy life past reproductive age (thanks to the evolution of menopause), turn to cooperation over conflict, and choose partners based on humour and personality — traits that may not be indicators of reproductive success and survival.

Cultural evolution is quicker and can be more powerful than our ingrained instincts. Our modern environment has changed from locally centered to global, and biologically we have not caught up. Our ideas have to make up the difference.

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Why Do We Over-Consume? by Darek Gondor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Darek Gondor is a writer, editor, and policy analyst with the Canadian government and formerly an editorial associate and researcher at the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace, responsible for the international journal Sustainability Science. He writes about the implications of human-environment interactions from a public policy perspective. Darek holds degrees in ecology (University of Guelph) and public policy (Carleton University).

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    An excellent essay that weaves together, in compelling fashion, easy-to-denounce ‘soft’ sciences and, together, gives them primacy in our efforts to find solutions to our global crises. Good work!

    Expanding our individual and collective identities, to recognize that we’re all interconnected so helping others IS helping ourselves, seems to be one key idea that can make the difference.

    So is keeping in mind the diminishing returns brought by increasing personal consumption. Someone once aptly said that the definition of compulsive behavior can be stated as “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.”

    Perhaps if we really understand that the holes in our psyches are never going to be satisfactorily filled with commercial acquisitions, we will instead begin to value more intrinsic, readily available, and ultimately fulfilling resources and relationships, with the Earth, and our neighbors.

    • christopherdoll

      Jacques Lacan said “the perfect lover is the one we have not yet met’.
      The perpetual chasing of things for temporary satisfaction is a key cause of overconsumption.
      Even if we rationally know that when we get it we are dissatisfied, we do not question the model, only that we desired the wrong thing and so the chain continues.

      Buddhists would see this as being in state of hunger. Whilst I don’t say we should all chant our way to sustainability, I think there could be insights from philosophy and religion to bring to this interesting debate.

  • Thanks Darek. I too very much like this post and hope it gets a lot of people thinking, as it did me. Awareness of these traits of ours can help us to resist them being exploited by advertisers/etc (and perhaps begin nudging these tendencies along towards obsolescence!) before it’s too late. For I’d say we have not yet left that line of sustainability so far behind that we cannot consciously choose to turn around and seek it out again as part of our cultural evolution.

  • christopherdoll

    Since when is poverty a new challenge?
    It is very interesting that despite the levels of hunger in the world, we choose not to solve this problem but to grow crops and feed them animals to enhance our consumption and now with climate change we are now feeding crops to machines in the form of biofuels. We still compete with ourselves to be the ‘fittest’ but we somehow equate this with consumption. It is the consequence of subscribing to the positive marginal utility of consumption, which underpins much economic thinking.

    It is not fair just to characterise the sub-national as potential barriers when actually the opposite case can also be made. In the US, some states have lead the way in implementing their own stricter emissions standards than sluggish national standards, who could be subject to specific lobbies. Cities too can be bold in their actions if they have the appropriate mandate.

    The C40 (40 cities) initiative shows cooperation need not occur at the national level and in fact, at the city-scale, competition to be the cleanest city is a useful incentive. I think when such activities are localised and brought into the context of being a clean city, which is a desirable place to live and work, then economic benefits start to coincide with environmental ones. This appeals to policy makers as being ‘joined-up thinking’ and people start to understand it at a scale they can conceptualise. It could be that talking of problems as ‘global’ are counter-productive because whilst they convey the magnitude of the problem, they also externlise the benefits and the solutions as something too big for them to make a difference in and therefore not worth trying.

    As for the final point any advertising executive will tell you “get ’em young!”
    Education has to be the cornerstone of any strategy.

  • Darek

    That’s right, its not fair to focus on conflict without proper mention of cooperation. Active research goes on to find out what makes some people cooperate over resources and what makes them compete.

    Contrast the comment above on C40 with the concluding COP 15 negotiations. What actually happened, is that countries with shared interests pooled together and found common ground. This is the level at which binding agreements should be sought, because it capitalizes on commonalities shared by citizens of a city for example. If nothing comes out of COP 15, I would imagine this process needs to change. That is, have the UNFCC act as a facilitator to groups of nations that have common economic interests, geography, expected climate impacts, etc. These nation groups should work out deals monitored and enforced by them – for example small islands, mountain countries, BRIC, and US, EU, Japan, etc. Then they would meet together to work out the details and transfer money from developed to developing counries. These big hyped meetings with each country bringing its own agenda don’t seem to work because the world is not yet a community, where people can “conceptualize” the benefits of cooperation.

    • christopherdoll

      How does this stop each group coming to what turns out to be mutually unacceptable demands/proposals?

      Countries are already arranged in such groups, so they have more power in a common interest. The aim of global negotiations is to then converge on funding and targets.

      Maybe you need to change the groupings or have certain developed countries link with groups of developing countries, for intermediate negotiations and then try and bring things together right at the end. So for example, US negotiates with Latin America, EU with Africa, Japan/Australia with Asia/Pacific and then see what the three sub-deals are and how they compare and then try and converge them into one global deal. If it fails you may still have three stronger mini-deals, which although not globally equitable maybe stronger than a globally weak deal.

  • Darek

    It doesn’t. I mean drop the mutually acceptable requirement all together, and devolve this to groups of similar countries, where the questions is – what are we prepared to do about climate change, regarldess of what anyone else does? The global stage would be these groups coming together not to reach a global agreement, but to support these smaller deals with funding, information, coordination, like a secretariat.

    We need to have some kind of success, no matter how small, it seems!

  • Auntiegrav

    Wow…a lot of “If”s here. The bottom line is that humans have forsaken the natural systems in favor of their imagined systems. The universe works on one principle: a thing that is more useful than consumptive will continue to exist. Humans were once a useful part of the ecosystem: but now they are only useful to each other, and that only in their own imaginary environment. Each new scheme is created only within its own parameters to grow (religion, capitalism, humanism, etc), and that growth is the problem, regardless of the medium or resources it plays with. Capitalism and cooperation within capitalism is the dominant culture. This is the worship of money. It needs a feedback mechanism that slows the influence of money (sales tax) at the point where decisions are made (purchase point). The human condition is simply one of animal instincts responding to available resources. Technology makes more resources available and reduces or eliminates dangers, thus removing impediments to growth of populations, but the key to change lies in the dominant belief system, and the current dominant belief system allows money to guide intentions, rather than wisdom or moderation.