Consumption, Consumption, What's My Function?

The amount of resources consumed just to extract resources we can consume has become staggeringly high. How much farther can this go?

By Christopher Kiely
Published March 10, 2011

Resource extraction to support consumption has been going on for thousands of years, from the slave labour salt mines of ancient Rome to the coal mines of Europe and the first gold mines of the Americas.

Resource extraction has always consumed in order to extract resources. Salt mining in Rome consumed years off a slave's life, many parts of Europe were deforested in order to build coal mines, water cannon gold mining consumed our most vital resource (i.e. water) while decimating mountains, polluting rivers and destroying natural habitats.

None of that has changed. Something has changed, though, and that is the amount of resources consumed to get our resources. It has become staggeringly high.

Industrial-Scale Strip Mine
Industrial-Scale Strip Mine

The days of mining with pick axe and wheelbarrow are long gone. Even the days of water cannon mining pale in comparison to the 400 ton mechanical behemoths of modern mining.

Consumption That Enables Consumption

As global consumption has increased, so have the size of the machines used to extract resources. As the machine size has increased, so has the amount of resources required to build and maintain them.

Natural rubber

is required for tires (synthetic rubber doesn't have the necessary heat dissipating ability), high-grade steel for structural components and barrels upon barrels of lubricants and fuel are required to keep them running. Just one machine will consume millions of liters of various lubricants and fuel in one year.

Often the machines themselves are consumed within a decade. Large mines will have several hundred of these machines, not to mention service vehicles, diesel generators, locomotives, buses and planes all consuming resources.

I wish I could say all these resources get recycled, because much of it can, but that is not the reality.

Resource Extraction Towns

It isn't just equipment that consumes resources, either. Often small cities are built around these mines with roads, massive workshops, fire stations, hotels, airports, seaports, communication networks (e.g., phone, cable and internet) and the necessary water, power distribution and sewage systems.

All mines have a life expectancy, though, and many of these mining towns, just like mining towns of yore, end up ghost towns when the resource is tapped out.

Not only are mining towns left to rot, but also entire towns are consumed just to get to resources. As for reclamation of old mines - don't count on that, either.

Out of Control

Why do we do this? So we can collect ever increasing amounts of stuff? So we can breed like bunnies until we have over-populated our planet and consumed ourselves to death?

How many resources do we need to consume to continue consuming? How badly do you need that new iPad 2.0? Bad enough to support the Democratic Republic of Congo and risk the future of one of the world's most majestic animals?

Our consumption is out of control. Planned obsolescence and the cult of stuff benefit only corporations and the interests of corporations are diametrically opposed to the interests of people.

Our rate and mode of consumption are designed to increase corporate profits and nothing more. A race to the bottom is not won by anyone: the first one there is simply the first to discover we are all screwed.

Redistribution Not the Answer

There is much talk today about the distribution of wealth and the need for a fairer system of wealth distribution but I fear that may be missing the point. The problem is wealth itself.

The creation of wealth comes at great cost. It costs our environment it costs our societies and it costs people in remote parts of the world that most people shopping at Best Buy don't even consider.

Unfortunately, redistributing wealth is not the answer to the problem. Taking the wealth created by the rampant consumption of disposable goods and distributing it more equitably amongst the workers is only perpetuating the problem.

It may seem great for the workers who see a bigger cut of the profits, but as long as wealth is being created, someone, somewhere, is being exploited. That is the only way wealth can be created.

Road to Ruin?

I'm not naive. I understand enough about economics to know corporations need to sell stuff to employ people and people need jobs in our current society in order to live. But I fear that, unless things drastically change, we are on the road to ruin.

Perhaps technology can save us. We could recycle anything and everything, slow down but not eliminate consumption and prey our resources last until we can find some way to reverse the damage we've done or get off this rock before our ecosystem collapses.

I'm not convinced any of that is going to happen, though. We are prisoners trapped in a world created by ignorance and hubris, and no matter how gilded the cage you're in, we are all in this thing together.

None of the options available to us that would truly change course from the inevitable are very appealing to the majority. The end of money, the end of wealth, the end of consumption: stuff, cars, gadgets, holidays in the sun. Most people don't want to hear about that.

But if we don't wake up and do something soon about this runaway system we have found ourselves dependent on, we may all end up there anyway. At that point, there may be nothing left besides survival of the fittest. That is, if our rampant consumption doesn't destroy our ecosystem first.

This essay was originally published on Christopher's personal website.

Christopher Kiely is a "middle class white guy" who was raised to believe certain things and has watched the world do the complete opposite for 30+ years. He attended Mohawk College in the 1990s, has traveled around some since and now lives with his family in Hamilton.


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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:59:29

Good article. This topic has really been bothering me a lot lately. Watching documentaries on natural gas flac drilling really got me infuriated... even more so when I discovered that companies are trying to get it going in Ontario now. The lies and corporate greed surrounding it is almost as sickening as the toxic chemicals they release into the ground.

Comment edited by MattM on 2011-03-10 11:01:44

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:36:12

Brilliant article. Love the historic, modern and global contexts. I studied the deforestation of Mt. Lebanon in school for a while - fascinating subject. It looked a little like British Columbia before it became a centre of resource extraction for Babylon, Egypt then Rome. Anyone seen it lately?

There's some basic math here which really scares me. Say what you want about any individual project or issue, but on the whole, several main things are happening:

  • The number of people is growing.
  • The amount of resources consumed per person is growing.
  • The amount of resources consumed per unit of resources extracted is growing (falling ore concentrations, EROI etc)

Even if all of these factors were growing in slow, linear fashions (as straight lines on graphs), they need to be multiplied together to give a true picture of what's happening. And that gives a very different kind of line and graph - an exponential curve. This means that as the process gathers steam, it begins growing far faster than ever before. In a few short years at the "end" it can grow and consume more than in the entire preceding time. It's said that humanity has used more resources since 1950 than in all the time before.

This kind of growth is going to hit a wall, hard. Not only will we begin to run seriously into shortages, but we'll do so at the height of demand. That may be what we're seeing now - but it may also not come for another few decades. If so, it will come at a time where there are far more people than we have now who are all far more dependent on these resources. And it will happen with far less functioning natural systems to fall back on.

Call me a "doomsayer" if ya like, but that's not going to change the numbers. Unless we act, we're all in a LOT of trouble.

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By jtford (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 14:22:00

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 22:45:02 in reply to Comment 60881

"The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long..." Dr. Eldon Tyrell

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By Hope Springs (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 14:32:46 in reply to Comment 60881

I wonder if people were saying things like this in Greece around 1100 BC, or Maya in the years before 900 AD, or in Rome in the years leading up to 476 AD, or on Easter Island in the 1600s.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 14:26:55

Was happy to read this piece. Thanks Christopher.

One of your lines got me thinking:

Perhaps technology can save us. We could [...] slow down but not eliminate consumption and prey our resources last until we can find some way to reverse the damage we've done or get off this rock before our ecosystem collapses.

I see a particular irony in any hopes that technology will save us from the cycle of consumption. Much the way the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate demonstrates that we tend to react to increased energy efficiency by using more energy, the past century is littered with examples of the wasted potential of technological advances.

Think of the average daily life of someone in 1920 compared to today. Someone living almost 100 years ago might be personally responsible for preparing and cleaning up after meals, mending/repairing and maintaining clothes, shoes and other goods, child-rearing, walking or traveling to work in often slow and inefficient ways, and a whole host of other daily duties that we have effectively outsourced in the 21st Century.

But to what benefit? Despite advances in food processing and marketing that allow us to eat quickly with little personal effort; despite clothes and dishwashers that cut clean-up time to mere fractions of what they were in 1920; despite nannies or other professionals that can ease individual burdens associated with childcare, and; despite modes of transportation that can take us from A to B in minutes, people are still as pressed for time as ever.

Plus we're fatter, more depressed and more anxious than ever. Our children aren't looked after, our civic institutions are crumbling, our democracies are in danger, and eternal problems like poverty, crime and pollution are no closer to being solved than a century ago.

Any assertion that technology will liberate us seems a bad joke in an era where Blackberries 'free' us to never leave work at the office, and the extra time offered to us by productivity-boosting machines is quickly gobbled up by consumption of trash media or junk food.

So I laugh, wondering what happened to the idealism of wishing to making the world a better place in one's spare time: the time and resources are there, but we just keep misappropriating or poorly investing them.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2011-03-10 14:29:23

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 22:57:09 in reply to Comment 60883

IF technology is going to save us, and that's a mighty big if, it needs to be among other things:

Small scale (think small scale household energy independence, not wind farms)

Energy efficient for energy efficiency's sake not just so we can burn more energy in other ways (you are so right about that one, but that's for another rant)

It cannot be engineered to become obsolete... it must last and be repairable.

All of those have one big problem... Global Capitalism wants nothing to do with them.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 11, 2011 at 09:43:29 in reply to Comment 60897

I'm a fan of Hermann Scheer's term, "Energy Autonomy". Decentralize it until homes, schools and businesses simply generate their own and each others. It needs to be something we own.

The costs associated with centralized power grids are enormous, and rarely stop at the technical. Whether it's government or corporate run, the administration, financing and profit margins tend to raise the price significantly. And unlike a "carbon tax" or "gas tax" might decrease use by consumers, money we spend on energy giants tends to be reinvested in keeping us dependent on them.

It's easy to vilify coal, oil and nuclear. But after the last half-century of hydro development, I'm not eager to see the same disasters repeated with wind or solar. Off with the grid!

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By Zot (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 15:41:26

"Why do we do this? ... So we can breed like bunnies until we have over-populated our planet and consumed ourselves to death?"

Ummmm... yep, I thought that would be obvious.

The reason that it's us and not Raccoons that are trashing the planet isn't because Racoons have some deep inner wisdom about living in harmony with the planet and their fellow creatures. It's because Racoons don't know how to do language, technology, tool use, fire, and the exploitation of fossil fuels. So their numbers and influence on the environment are held in a more or less steady state by the factors that constrain their growth as a species. Provide an environment free of predators, full of food and water, remove the Racoon shit as it piles up and you'll be hip deep in Racoons in no time at all.

We are still at the stage where we can push back our constraints and expand our share of the available resources of the plant, at the expense of other species of course, because of the nifty tricks we have figured out that those other species have not.

We probably started down the road to failure as a species 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture. We certainly jumped off the cliff 200 years ago when we figured out fossil fuels.

So it goes. As Mr. Carlin says the people are screwed, but the planet is fine.

There is really no reason to be too upset. The sun has another 4,000,000,000 years or so of fuel left before it goes red giant and melts the planet. Lots of interesting critters will evolve and go extinct during that time blissfully unaware that humanity ever existed. I'd be amazed if we have another 1,000 years before we take up our place in the fossil record.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted March 13, 2011 at 14:19:00 in reply to Comment 60888

Provide an environment free of predators, full of food and water, remove the Racoon shit as it piles up and you'll be hip deep in Racoons in no time at all.

Sounds like many an urban backyard...

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 22:35:00 in reply to Comment 60888

Ummmm... yep, I thought that would be obvious.

Somewhat Socratic questions ; )

the planet is fine

This is why I use the word ecosystem. It is our ecosystem's ability to sustain us that we need to worry about. You (and Mr. Carlin) are right, the planet doesn't care about us, it would be happier if we all died off.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2011 at 18:50:17 in reply to Comment 60888

The thing is, human beings have had fire for around fifty thousand years, language/art for at least thirty, and tools/technologies for at least a hundred thousand. Despite all this, most people and most societies have not been anywhere near a destructive as ours.

This isn't something we're doomed to do because we're human. This is something we choose to do as a society. And it's something we can choose to stop.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 23:04:43 in reply to Comment 60891

I read an interesting interview an "interwebs" friend of mine did with a lady by the name of Ellen LaConte that you may find interesting Undustrial. She has a new book called "Life Rules" that talks about people not following the set rules of life, I think I may have to check it out. Anyway, here's the link.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2011-03-10 23:07:12

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 00:46:18

As long as waist is the name of the game the rich will just keep getting richer..

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:55:28 in reply to Comment 60899

It's true. Designer clothes that fit snuggly along the waist made Calvin Klein and Georgio Armani a lot of money.

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By karl l (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 13:48:23 in reply to Comment 60907

You can never be too rich, or too phat.

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By Keep on talking (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 14:28:32

Great article Chris:

Yes, we do have to change things, however, those, the old guard will hang on dearly for life to the old way. In my view, the old guard would use force to keep the status quo in tact.

We must also look at the media and how things like the medium of TV have done. Everyday, it is a constant barrage of consumer items to give the illusion that if we ahve all this stuff, we are successful. While those who struggle in low income are not always able to buy things, it is those in the middle class who are consumed by very high levels of consumer debt due to their insatiable appetite for things. Many in the middle class are one paycheque away from complete disaster and have no real clue to what would lie ahead if they ever had to depend on the social safety net.

If mother nature dies, we die, too bad people choose to ignore that fact and continue on the same old path, thinking their riches will save them.

What affects one, affects us all!

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