From simple consumption to complex impacts


Verzeker duurzame consumptie- en productiepatronen

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”
                           Alfred N. Whitehead, 1911

While we are busy living our lives we are constantly, and most of the time unconsciously, consuming information, energy, water and materials. Part of this consumption is completely unavoidable, since as living, breathing beings we require a constant stream of air, food and water just to stay alive and many material resources for shelter and warmth. Once those basic conditions are met and we move up the Maslow hierarchy of needs, our consumption becomes more complicated: we must decide how to attract a suitable mate in order to find love and belonging, we consume to attain and maintain social status, and use materials, energy and information to self-actualize and express ourselves.

Our consumption is very personal and very global at the same time, with highly visible, yet at the same time, completely hidden facets. While nobody wakes up in the morning thinking “Right, today I will destroy the world!” the combined consumption of 7.5 billion people around the world just going about their daily lives creates vast environmental and social impacts. While parts of that daily consumption is very visible, like a can of a soft-drink with brightly painted logo in our hand, the industrial supply chain that brought steel, paint, sugar, food coloring, transport and marketing together, so that it could be in your hands, is completely invisible to you.

Let’s put this into perspective. Imagine that after a long day of work, you return home in the evening and turn on the lights. This simple, basic and necessary action causes energy to be drawn from the home’s electricity network. It then slightly increases the energy demand in the local grid, immediately causing a continent size machine, the energy grid, to work a little bit harder. This machine delivers your energy by extracting, processing and burning fossil fuels in power plants, through a large electrical network, across many power markets, through many legal systems, before eventually being billed to you at the end of the month.

As your date arrives, which you hope to impress with a relaxing evening of “Netflix and chill”, you order a pizza for two via an app on your smartphone. Hundreds of kilobytes of data stream through your home Wi-Fi network, into the local network provided by the Internet Service Provider, across the intercontinental optical fiber to change the arrangement of a few bits on a website, which will trigger a pizza company to make your pizza with flour made from Chinese wheat, cheese made from Dutch milk and sauce made from American tomatoes.

After you enjoy your movie and pizza, you wash your hands with soap, and throw away the pizza box and the paper towel you and your date used to dry your hands. The wastewater from your sink, after passing through your home and street sewage system will eventually end up being treated at the local waster water treatment plant, built with Brazilian steel and managed using German made process control computers. The towels you used were produced using Finnish wood, and the recycled paper you carefully separated will be sent to China for recycling.

Now let’s imagine that you wish to impress your date by being an environmentally conscious consumer. You made an explicit and conscious choice to order a pizza made from organic materials, and were careful to recycle the paper box it came in. You however did not and could not choose which type of ink was used to print the label on the pizza box, or whether the copper used to make the wires carrying the data of your pizza order was produced without using child labor. Since the invisible part of the supply chain, the systems that produces simple automated functions we consume, is so much larger than the visible part, it is impossible to make fully informed choices, even if one assumes that we have the intention and the means to make that choice.

If we are, as a society, to enable consumption that is equitable, environmentally sound and affordable, we must explore at least two different directions. First, we must increase people’s understanding of the interconnected eco-socio-technical systems that provide for our consumption. Second, we must be able to provide consumers accurate and accessible information about the impacts of that consumption.

First, let’s explore potential ways to better understand the impact of our consumption. Systems thinking is widely practiced in academia, and there is a growing number of academic curricula that teach it. The challenge is in making this much more holistic perspective on the world more accessible to general public by translating this knowledge to elementary and high school levels. Concepts such as emergence, path dependency, adaptively, chaos, context dependency, etc. greatly aid in understanding how one relates to and interacts with the world at large, and provides an appreciation of the small but significant impacts one individual can have on the system.  Furthermore, it helps if one understands the primary drivers of consumption, potentially reducing non-essential, status driven consumption.

Second, informed society must have the means to base its decision on facts about the impact of its consumption, and the vast systems that make it possible. Only if we can refuse to spend our money on dirty, wasteful and unfair products will novel production processes for energy, food, materials, novel supply chain structures come to be. Businesses must be challenged to stop hiding behind “the market wants X” and actively acknowledge their role in both driving demand and making dedicated choices for sustainable production technologies and practices. Conscious and informed consumers will aid the firms survive the innovation “valley of death” while transitioning.

Clearly, nothing short of a fundamental transition of the global economy can “solve” this challenge. As we go through the transition, we must be mindful of the local and global winners and losers. Changes in technology, institutions and social structures have unequal impacts, and vested interests will actively attempt to maintain the status quo. We furthermore need clear and decisive normative choices by governments in influencing the right kinds of consumption and limiting damaging production practices.

But most of all we must remember that there is no easy fix, that we are limited in our choices by the decisions of generations past and that we are creating opportunities for different futures with each and every decision we take. We have no other way forward but to embrace this complexity, and find rational solutions for the civilization, while fully acknowledging our irrational, emotional and value based nature.

Igor Nikolic

Igor Nikolic

Associate Professor
Section Energy & Industry, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management
Delft University of Technology

The Maslow hierarchy of needs starts with physiological need for air, water, food and shelter. When these are satisfied humans move to safety and security. Next level is belonging and love which includes friendship and intimate relationships. Next level up we find esteem, the need for prestige and feeling of accomplishment. At the highest level we find self-actualization – achieving ones full potential.