Humans now need the equivalent of 1.5 planet Earths to sustain our current level of consumption, and if we all lived like Americans it would take four. In 2013 we reached “Earth Overshoot Day” – the day by which we had used an amount of the Earth’s resources equal to what it can replenish in a single year – by August 20, and every year it draws closer.
The reason why we would need four Earths to all live at the same standard as Americans is because Americans consume so much more of the planet than the average human. The average American consumes 25 tons of the world’s natural resources every year, and they operate 25% of the world’s motor vehicles, despite only being 4% of the population.
This is broadly true of Westerners in general.
We buy big cars, often with every family member having their own, we buy boats, we go on overseas holidays, we buy enormous amounts of plastic, especially in packaging, and we recycle electronic appliances well before they become obsolete.
One thing can be said for certain about all this consumption – namely, that it will end. The planet is finite whether we like it or not. Sooner or later, like sand through an hourglass, the supply will run out and activity will diminish.
Let’s be honest: we don’t work to live anymore, at least not in the West. Technological advancement has made it unnecessary. The average Westerner has so much accumulated capital increasing the value of their labour that a surplus exists easily large enough to feed us all.
We work because we want more stuff. Fuck Earth Overshoot Day! We want an even bigger car, the latest Playstation, and to upgrade to a McMansion – and we want it now!
We could collectively cut down to working half the number of hours that we do, but we won’t, because the need to accumulate stuff is its own moral imperative.
The GDP per capita in America is around USD57,000 per year, which is close to $75,000 in New Zealand dollars. If Americans use four times as much of the Earth’s resources than what the Earth can sustain, then we can put a dollar figure on the upper bound of possible consumption.
One quarter of $75,000 is $18,750 per year. This figure represents the maximum level of consumption that humans would have to limit ourselves to in order to collectively avoid ecological collapse.
Curiously, $18,750 is a level of consumption roughly equal to what New Zealand beneficiaries are already forced to live on, which raises an interesting point – in the long run, environmental laws dictate that the average person on Earth cannot be any wealthier than the average New Zealand beneficiary already is.
In other words, almost every Westerner with a job – who in almost every case will be spending far more than $18,750 a year – is consuming an amount of the world’s resources that is not sustainable in the long run.
In the long run, the average person cannot consume the world’s resources at a rate greater than that of the current average New Zealand beneficiary.
Considering that all of us will eventually have to cut down to this level of consumption, whether we like it or not, the people who are currently beneficiaries are actually giving us a glimpse of what level of wealth is realistically sustainable.
In that sense they are harbingers of the future, unlike the rest of us currently consuming an unsustainable amount of resources. Thus it could be argued that beneficiaries are the true environmentalists.