The more you earn, the more you travel and shop, and the worse it is for the environment
Inner-suburbanites have bigger eco-footprints than people who live further out, despite having better access to public transport. It might sound surprising, but that’s one of the glaring results of the consumption atlas produced by the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“We found there’s a very strong relationship between wealth and environmental impact,” says Chuck Berger, from the foundation.
The reasons? Shopping and flying.
“People tend to think greenhouse pollution is mainly created by electricity use and driving, but those direct impacts add up to about one-third of our average impact on climate change,” Mr Berger says.
“The other two-thirds comes from the emissions created in producing food and the goods and services we purchase – everything from clothes and electronic goods, to furniture, flights and eating out.”
Using the consumption atlas, you can find out the environmental impact of the average person in your suburb or town, displayed by way of greenhouse emissions, water consumption or land use.
If you want to reduce your spending, you can start by signing up to Buy Nothing New Month, throughout October. It’s the second year of the campaign, which targets over-consumption by promoting alternatives such as buying second-hand, repairing old goods, renting, or taking up hobbies rather than shopping for leisure.
For his part, Mr Berger advocates sharing, whether within the household, among neighbours, or by using community facilities. “Libraries and public swimming pools are classic examples, but there are also new models such as car-share schemes which are taking off in some inner-city areas,” he says.
Dr Samuel Alexander, lecturer at University of Melbourne and founder of the Simplicity Institute, says there’s another confronting message behind the consumption atlas: regardless of the differences between suburbs, nearly all Australians are consuming more than the planet can sustain, if all humanity lived that way.
“As a culture more broadly, if we’re going to take ecological issues seriously, then almost all of us have to rethink our consumption habits – even people who are by no means wealthy,” he says.
He maintains that the answer doesn’t just lie with technology. All over the world, greenhouse emissions have continued to rise, despite the fact that many production methods have become progressively more efficient.
On the household scale, Dr Alexander says, we must be wary of a similar trap.
“You have to be very careful that the benefits of efficiency improvements aren’t redirected into commodities that have similar impacts. For example, if we save money on power bills by insulating our houses, we shouldn’t use it to buy more plane tickets, but instead, say, to buy a water tank.”
Dr Alexander is conducting an ongoing survey of people who have chosen to live more simply, adopting lower-income, lower-consumption lifestyles. So far, nine out of ten respondents say they’re happier for the change.
He says his findings are consistent with sociological research suggesting the link between consumption and wellbeing weakens once we reach a basic level of material security.
“The core philosophy of voluntary simplicity holds that it’s not about deprivation or sacrifice, but rethinking your lifestyle in a way that you consume less but you live more,” he says. “By limiting your consumption, you’re able to direct more time and energy to non-material pursuits such as time with your friends and family, creative activities and relaxation.”