Professors Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkins in their brilliantly edited open book – “Sustainability: A Comprehensive Guide”, talk of human proclivity to over consume as the main challenge to sustainable future.
Discussing the issues related to consumption, the argument begins with the IPAT equation. In this equation “I” stands for impact of human activity on environment, P stands for population at any given point of time, a represents per capita consumption and T denotes impact per unit of consumption. It is an euphemism for technology and management strategies that impact the environment in positive or negative way.
So the equation puts a lot of emphasis on the technology and management practices to adopt efficient production, manufacturing, transport and supply options to meet the same or growing demand of an ever increasing population. This efficiency is touted as the holy grail of sustainability as a lot can be achieved in much less.
Globally many companies have taken to improving their resources and supply efficiency as it makes great business sense. Even the United Nations has jumped on to the bandwagon. In 2012 it presented its sustainable energy for all (SE4ALL) initiative. In his speech the Secretary General Ban ki Moon Said that energy efficiency was the fuel of the future. He placed a great deal of importance on its ability to bring down energy usage and usher in an era of clean urban landscape.
However, here lies the catch. Global population stands at 7 billion today and is expected to increase to 9.2 billion by mid 21st century (2050). The long term growth in global gross domestic product (GDP) is pegged at 3.5 percent per annum leading to a four-fold increase in the size of the global economy.
Another important factor is the growth of middle class. It is estimated that a billion more will enter the fold of middle class and their consumption pattern will see a dramatic increase. In such a scenario the entire burden of maintaining a sustainable economic development will fall on technology and management practices of the companies.
They will have to employ ways and means to meet the demand of a population that has risen by 1/3rd and consumption that has increased four-fold while decreasing their impact on environment or maintaining it at 2010 level.
This is a tall ask for any company or for that matter any economy or the government. It is because no matter how much technological sophistication you employ ultimately it the humans who will have to change their consumption pattern to control runaway consumption.
In 1865 a British Economist by the name William Jevons took the coal consumption data of 19th century England and came up with a theory that increased efficiency of steam production through the use of coal led to sharp decline in the price of steam production as well as found new ways of employing this energy. This rise in efficiency and consequent decline in prices ironically led to greater increase in coal consumption instead of witnessing any decline, leading to a situation which is now called “Jevons Paradox”.
Subsequent research in the US of many materials like pig iron, aluminium, coal for electricity and fertilizer showed the same trend. The pattern reflected that the gains accrued by efficiency measures were quickly nullified to increased consumption. It was termed as “rebound effect” by the economists. In many cases the consumption exceeded far more than the efficiency gains. This was termed as ”backfire”, where efficiency actually led to deterioration in environmental impact due to over consumption.
“Rebound” and “backfire” happen because accessibility of product and services increases, both in terms of their usage as well as lowered prices. This opens up an opportunity for twin chances of increased consumption. The consumers that were already availing the products and services tend to become lackadaisical, callous or plain pathetic when they see the prices drop. The culture of use and throw sets in as it doesn’t impact the purse strings in any significant way. While in the second category the new consumer senses an opportunity to buy a product or avail a service which till now was out of bounds for her. The power to buy is a big statement for this segment as it is also a mark of arrival in a certain league.
These two varied impulses lead to a situation where consumption creates a “rebound” or “backfire” situation negating efficiency gains in technology and processes.
This makes the quest for sustainability that much harder. Those who think that efficiency will drive sustainability are overlooking an important aspect of the equation – human behaviour. The bigger challenge is the ethics of consumption. How to deal with consumer behaviour? Should there be a campaign to bring down per capita consumption? Should the theory of minimising needs be applied on the human society? These are the questions that sustainability advocates will have to deal with today to attain a sustainable future.