The Geopolitics of Overconsumption, Where Less is More

The Geopolitics of Overconsumption, Where Less is More

Individual success has long been equated with consuming more. Building a larger house translates into extracting more resources to build, heat, and cool it. Fossil fuels are consumed to drive us to our workplaces, to power a multitude of home electronic devices, and to fuel the container ships and trucks that bring us furniture from far afield. More than 50 percent of U.S. households today have three or more televisions, while the average household size is just 2.6 persons. Up to 80 percent of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries is tied to household activities, including waste disposal and the delivery of goods and services to households.

People around the world observe North American and European consumption habits and desire to emulate them. But if everyone were to consume like a typical North American, we would need five planets. Europeans come out a little better; their consumption requires three planets. Some 3 billion people are expected to enter the global middle class in the years ahead, and sustaining their consumption will require asking ever more of the planet and of our governance institutions.

For their part, national policymakers and government agencies often seek to increase consumption as an antidote to sluggish economic growth. And they have continued in the belief that prosperous lifestyles must mean extracting, growing, shipping, and consuming more, and reacting with indignation when others get in the way. When China limits rare earths, it is accused of playing a geopolitical game. When navies are deployed to the Gulf of Aden to protect oil tankers and container ships from pirates, rarely does anyone ask why we need those goods whose passage we are paying to safeguard. Today, many of the top resource challenges of our time are being discussed as geopolitical and security concerns, whether rare earths, fracking, the KeystoneXL and Nabucco pipelines, or agricultural export bans to regulate food prices. But it is all the more reason that reducing our resource use — whether energy, water, minerals, or agricultural products — should be viewed as a first-order strategic concern, not just a feel-good one for environmentalists or those concerned about excessive materialism.

Positive signs that the consumption question is being debated are apparent. The U.S. military has embarked on a substantial energy efficiency campaign because it sees its overconsumption as a security vulnerability. European Union officials are tentatively pushing for greater sustainability and increases in resource efficiency across the continent. A number of environmental think tanks have recently issued reports about the opportunities presented by redefining growth and reducing the material demands of wealthy societies. The U.S. National Intelligence Council has affirmed its concern over the implications of climate change with a major report on water scarcity. And several organizations have recommended moving beyond GDP as a measure of prosperity. But none of these strategies can succeed via technological and industrial changes alone: they require behavioral changes by informed citizens and consumers.

Simply telling people to use less and tighten their belts has never been a successful strategy, politically or culturally. Strategic thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic must approach material consumption and the globalized trading system as an opportunity to address the geopolitics of overconsumption. Policies that induce big gains in resource efficiency and reductions in resources consumed at home are critical to meeting the strategic and moral imperatives of a complex, interconnected, and resource-constrained world. Many policies that would help set us on such a course are included in the Transatlantic Academy report, Global Resource Nexus. These include taxes on resource extraction, use, wastage, and pollution; serious funding for much-needed research on accelerating resource efficiency; a suite of national policies to ramp up energy efficiency and reduce energy demand that are already being used by leading states, cities, and companies; and the establishment of transatlantic dialogues on new models of prosperity that use far fewer resources. Opening such dialogues and gradually reforming taxation and regulation to incentivize resource efficiency and reduce wastes of all kinds would be excellent first steps on a path toward greater sustainability and security.