How Overconsumption Affects the Environment and Health, Explained

You likely contribute to overconsumption in ways you might not realize.

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Of all the human practices that are gradually destroying the environment, overconsumption is one of the most significant and least discussed. We are using up our planet’s resources faster than they can regenerate, and a look at how overconsumption affects the environment and global health makes it abundantly clear that if we want to continue living on planet Earth, we need to make some serious changes, and fast.

What Is Overconsumption?

Simply put, overconsumption is when humans consume more resources than we produce. At the smallest scale, this occurs at the individual level, but overconsumption is more commonly measured on a country-wide, continent-wide or planet-wide basis. No matter how you look at it, the upshot is the same: if we use resources at a faster rate than we can regrow or extract them, we’ll eventually run out of resources.

Sadly, this is exactly what we’re doing.

Is Overconsumption Getting Worse?

Consumption rates differ wildly from region to region, but on the whole, we’re consuming the planet’s resources 1.7 times faster than they can regenerate, according to the Guardian. This means that in the long run, we’d need 1.7 Earths to sustain our current levels of consumption, which is obviously unsustainable. It wasn’t always like this: back in 1961, humanity only needed 0.74 Earths to support its consumption levels.

This shift is partially attributable to population growth; the worldwide population has more than doubled since 1961, and our use of resources has closely tracked that growth. Between 1985 and 2005, worldwide resource extraction increased by around 50 percent, according to a report by the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, in large part to support the growing population.

But this change isn’t solely the result of population growth, as per-capita consumption has steadily risen over the decades as well.

For instance, between 1970 and 2021, U.S. consumer spending has increased by an astounding 400 percent. However, the population has only grown by 60 percent, meaning individuals themselves are consuming more than they used to.

How Food Contributes to Overconsumption

Meat consumption in particular has risen dramatically over the decades. In 1961, the average person in a high-income country ate around 123 pounds of meat per year, but by 2020, they were consuming 199 pounds of meat per year. This same trend holds in upper-middle-income and lower-middle-income  countries as well.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of the consumption equation, though, is the astonishing amount of food that is extracted but not eaten. A staggering one-third of all food on the planet is wasted every year, and around one-fourth of all animals killed for food are never actually eaten. Some of this is due to businesses and individuals throwing away leftovers, but a much bigger share of food — almost 50 percent — is lost during the production process itself. Whether it’s crop pests, livestock diseases or animals dying in transit, our current system of food production results in around 1.3 billion tons of wasted food annually, which is also an enormous contributor to overconsumption.

Who’s Most Responsible for Overconsumption

Although consumption has steadily increased around the world, it would be unfair to suggest that everybody — or every country — is equally responsible for pulling humanity across the threshold into unsustainability.

A mere 20 percent of the population consumes 80 percent of the world’s resources, and unsurprisingly, it’s the richer, more developed countries that do most of the consuming. In North America, the average person consumes nine times as many natural resources as the average person in Africa.

The Consequences of Overconsumption

Many researchers and organizations have attempted to predict the long-term future impacts of overconsumption, and — spoiler alert — the predictions are pretty grim. The grimmest would probably be the World Wildlife Fund’s 2002 declaration that, absent a stark change in consumption rates, Earth “will expire by 2050.” More recent predictions haven’t been quite as bleak, but they’re still not good.

The Organisation For Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that by 2050, polluted air will kill three times as many people as it already has. Plastic in the ocean is expected to quadruple over that same period, according to the WWF, while the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere warns that global oil reserves could be entirely depleted by 2052.

It makes sense that much of the discussion about overconsumption focuses on long-term projections; if we continue to use our planet’s resources faster than they can be generated, we’ll eventually run out of resources, which would quite literally threaten humanity’s existence.

But we don’t need to theorize about the future to understand the impact of overconsumption, as it’s already had many observable and regrettable consequences. These consequences take many different forms, depending on the resource and the region.

Overconsumption’s Impact on the Environment and Health

Overconsumption is inextricably linked to natural resource extraction. Brazilian rainforests are razed to produce lumber, or to clear the way for mining and agricultural development. Copper is used to make everything from kitchen sinks and jewelry to electrical wires and cell phones. And of course, oil is mined to fuel the many vehicles humans use to travel the world.

One stark example of how the over-extraction of resources affects the environment and health is the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta is one of the world’s largest wetlands, and was once a rich and fertile ecosystem with thriving farmlands and fisheries. However, nearly a century of oil extraction has wrought havoc on the region’s ecosystem and inhabitants. Thanks to the harmful chemicals that are released into the air during the oil extraction process, it now rains acid in the Niger Delta, which corrodes roofs and building structures, destroys crops and pollutes water sources across the delta.

But the human toll of this resource extraction is even more horrifying. Many residents of the delta suffer from breathing problems and chronic bronchitis, and a 2021 study found that cancer rates are much higher in the delta than in non-oil-producing parts of Nigeria. Tragically, as a result of these and other adverse health effects of oil extraction, the life expectancy in the Niger Delta is just 40 years.

This is just one region and one resource, but there are similar cases around the world. In Peru, copper mining and smelting has created water shortages and polluted the air so much that in one town, a study found that 99 percent of children had lead poisoning.

In Brazil, almost 20 percent of the entire Amazon has been deforested, according to the Council For Foreign Relations, largely for logging and cattle farming. As a result of this widespread destruction, there has been mass soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and increased CO2 emissions in the Amazon. Deforestation has also killed scores of animals who live in the Amazon and endangered the livelihoods of local indigenous people.

Overfishing and Its Impact on Overconsumption

Meanwhile, oceans around the world have been overfished to produce seafood, which poses a serious threat to fish populations. Overfishing occurs when people catch fish and other sea creatures at a higher rate than they can reproduce. The practice has put over one-third of all sharks, rays and chimeras at risk of going extinct, according to the WWF, and around one-third of all fisheries are now at risk of depopulation thanks to overfishing, according to the Sierra Club.

It’s also cost people jobs: When Canada’s Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed in 1992 due to overfishing, over 35,000 people who worked in the local seafood industry were put out of work.

Given how widespread overfishing is, it’s no surprise that the seafood industry is also one of the biggest offenders when it comes to food waste. As previously mentioned, around a quarter of all animals farmed for food are never eaten — but that number rises to almost 50 percent when it comes to seafood, according to the Sierra Club.

All of this resource extraction can be linked back to overconsumption. Oceans are overfished to feed global demand for seafood, which is expected to double by 2050.

How to Limit Your Own Overconsumption

So, how can we go about reversing these trends? At the most fundamental level, the answer is obvious: By consuming less. But how do we do that?

There are plenty of practical steps individuals can take to reduce their consumption. Using reusable containers and products as opposed to disposable ones is a great place to start; for instance, you might get a reusable coffee filter instead of paper filters, or start taking your own grocery bag to the supermarket. Switching to paperless billing, buying food in glass containers instead of plastic ones, and using a hybrid or electric vehicle are also good opportunities to use fewer natural resources in your day-to-day life.

Another way of fighting overconsumption is to reduce your meat and dairy consumption. Meat production is terrible for the planet, and those of us in the global north already eat much more meat than we need to. Adopting a plant-based diet is another excellent way to bring your individual consumption down to more sustainable levels.

However, some activists have argued that the best way for individuals to consume fewer resources is to simply to spend less money across the board, regardless of what that money is spent on.

JB MacKinnon, a Canadian journalist and author of the book “The Day The World Stopped Shopping,” is one such person. He has written and spoken at length about the dangers of overconsumption, and argues that the adoption of green technology — well-intentioned as it may be — is ultimately less effective in protecting the environment than reducing consumption of all products, green or not, across the board.

“If you want a rule of thumb for how much impact you’re having as a consumer, the best one is: how much money are you spending?,” MacKinnon told the Guardian. “If it’s increasing, you’re probably increasing your impact; if it’s lowering, you’re probably lowering your impact.”

As an example, MacKinnon points to cars. Pushing for more energy-friendly cars on the roads is fine, but the better long-term approach would be to create a society where there are fewer cars on the road in total.

“When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology,” MacKinnon said. “Many people would like to see the world consume fewer resources, yet we constantly avoid the most obvious means of achieving that.”

At the end of the day, these two strategies for lowering consumption aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible to prioritize using green technology while also buying fewer things across the board — and that’s exactly what anyone who wants to reduce their consumption should do.

Overconsumption can be a tricky issue to conceptualize because on the most basic level, we all need to consume in order to survive. It’s also not fair to solely blame individuals for this problem, as modern society is structured in a way that encourages overconsumption. But  the wide-reaching environmental and global health consequences of our current practices make it abundantly clear that we’re consuming a lot more than we need to. Unless we make a change, overconsumption  will destroy our ecosystems — and possibly humanity’s ability to live within them.

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