Tibetan monks meditating

Political correctness means we miss the real driver of unsustainability

Humans use more energy today, roughly 173,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) than at any other time in history. This is an unfathomable number so let’s bring it back to a more human scale.

An average global John Doe consumes 58 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of primary energy per day. 

In light bulb terms, that is equivalent to turning on 58 light bulbs and leaving them on overnight—each 100-watt bulb would take 10 hours to use one kilowatt-hour of energy.

graphic of 58 light bulbs

One hundred years ago in 1922, global energy use was 18,067 TWh an order of magnitude less with over half coming from coal and most of the rest from biomass.

There were fewer people back in the Roaring Twenties so the average John Doe made it through 26 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of primary energy per day, a little under half the modern man, but way more than the pre-industrial gentleman.

graphic showing 26 light bulbs

Where does the energy come from?

Current energy demand is met mostly (79%) from the use of fossil fuels.

graph of global energy consumption since 1800 by source of energy

This is a massive sustainability problem because fossil fuels are not renewable on human timescales. Whatever way you try to spin it, fossil fuels are finite, and we are burning them rapidly—we are roughly a half to two-thirds of our way through this pulse of free energy.

We use energy to grow food, heat our buildings and rapidly get from A to B. We also use energy to extract materials and convert them into goods from hams to handbags that we also transport worldwide.

Energy and material use might be somewhat sustainable. While there are energy sources available to power technology, then innovation and resource substitution can keep the wheels on the bus going around. 

But there is a kicker.

Material consumption uses energy, and thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, whenever energy is used, there is waste

And this inevitable byproduct of materials and heat has to go somewhere. Waste from human use of energy and resources ends up in the environment as pollution. 

This is the genuinely unsustainable part.

garbage piled up by the ocean
Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

Great inequality

We use averages to bring these global numbers down to a recognisable scale but there is no such thing as a global John Doe. 

Nobody wants to be anonymous and average. We all aspire to be better, more, and greater because we are a consequence of our lizard brains.

As William Rees from the University of British Columbia describes, we do not have an ‘off’ switch when it comes to having enough, instead we 

habituate to any level of consumption (once a given level is attained, satisfaction quickly diminishes) so the tendency to consume and accumulate ratchets up. 

William Rees

This is all about our brain chemistry and our intimate relationship with dopamine. 

Everyone has an innate desire for betterment, but not everyone will get ahead at the same rate. Opportunity, circumstance, skill and a whole heap of luck mean that a few will be Kardashians, and the rest will be trying their darndest to keep up with them.

At the inane level of reality TV, this might not be too disruptive, but inequality is real life and manifests as poverty and excess. When a human is hungry, our survival instinct is triggered, and we take action to obtain the energy and material consumption needed. For most of us, we work to eat. And those without work must rely on their wits and the support of society or stay hungry. 

As many as 829 million people are in this predicament daily, some 10% of people globally.

At the other extreme, John is sipping a gin and tonic on his private jet en route to a rendezvous with his yacht in the Mediterranean.

Ramp up this inequality across countries and regions, and there are perils in the poor not having the time or the money to even think about a new green deal. All that matters is getting food and shelter to the people.

According to the UN Development Program, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population takes home 76.6% of global income, while the poorest 20% subsist on 1.5%. 

Inequality at scale is why we have Sustainable Development Goals.

Vital as it is to distribute resources more equitably, even this is not the real issue.

The driver is the population

Whilst we don’t have an average John Doe we do have 8 billion John and Janes with this significant milestone reached in November 2022.

Source: Worldometer accessed at 10:50 am AEDT on Tuesday 22 November 2022

Back in 1922, when John Doe made it through 26 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of primary energy per day, he was joined in through this hedonistic time by around 2 billion fellows.

This means that 6 billion people have arrived in the last 100 years.

That is three more people for every one person that was alive to enjoy jazz in the roaring twenties. 

Where did they come from?

They didn’t migrate in from Mars or appear by an act of God. They were born. 

Their mothers were well-fed and strong enough to give birth, often repeatedly. Most of these babies lived long enough and well enough to grow and give birth themselves. They too were well fed and had access to basic medications. 

Human technology did terrific things with access to food, public health and infrastructure. Human society did amazing things to keep people well-organised and, for the most part, civilised. 

But it was nature—more specifically, plants growing in soil—that took the extra energy humans were able to extract from the ground and turned it into people. 

This is basic biology. 

Unsustainable population

Give any organism access to excess energy and nutrients without predators or constraints of space or climate, and the population will increase exponentially. Biology makes this inevitable.

Humans are no different to any other organism when it comes to reproduction.

Unsustainability is not really about energy use or consumerism or politics, or any of the proximate reasons that are popular.  

The real reason that humanity is no longer sustainable is that there are 8 billion of us, and in the time it has taken to read this post, 148 more people have arrived than departed.

Here is the thing.

173,000 TWh per day is more about the 8 billion total than the 58 kWh per person. 

Even if everyone reduced their energy use to 30 kWh per person per day, the level of the lowest energy users in countries like Chad, Central African Republic, and Haiti, we reduce global energy use by half—the same amount we were using in 1982.

Instead, it is more likely that the good people of Chad aspire to better, more secure lifestyles, as do the people in China, India and everywhere else yet to achieve a so-called western level of consumption.

When these countries move toward “developed” lifestyles, their environmental impact will become even more unsustainable than the West due to the vast number of people involved. Only this cannot be said aloud. Instead, we collude into cognitive dissonance and collective denial as the loss of ecosystem integrity accelerates worldwide. 

Here is William Rees again

The consumer lifestyles of the wealthy cannot be extended sustainably to the poor using currently available technologies. To sustain just the present world population at North American, material standards would require the equivalent of three to four additional Earth-like planets (and we have yet to account for the additional 2.5 billion people expected by midcentury)… 

William Rees

Even if it were possible to tackle the ecological crisis by reigning in excessive energy and material consumption and ineffective regulation (with resultant high pollution loads) that goes on in the west and dealing with chronic poverty and primitive technology on the other—poor people are more concerned with basic survival and cannot afford to pay for a “clean environment”—the absolute numbers mean that arriving at a more modestly provisioned John Doe still leaves humanity in a precarious position.

What we have as politically correct solutions of greater material efficiency, more ecologically benign technologies, and continued growth (to relieve poverty and generate the resources necessary to “clean up” the “environment”) are not going to cut it.

There are too many people.

What sustainably FED suggests

I am often reminded of what a friend, also named John, said to me as we supped on a Castle lager and contemplated the world on the banks of the Zambezi river—those were the days—he said, ‘you can’t blame the kids for being born’.

Of course, you can’t. They are here with as much right to aspiration and well-being as all the humans that preceded them. 

So before we are trolled for implying that we need to cull people or any other such nonsense, the long-term solution is fewer people by natural attrition. 

The challenge is for this process to be kind and gentle. Humans must engineer such an outcome because, if left to nature, the transition from 8 billion to a sustainable 2 billion will be ugly.

Airing the reality might help us have a conversation about how to achieve a soft landing.

Science source

Rees, W. (2010). What’s blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 6(2), 13-25

Hero image from Photo by Pixabay


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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