Consumption, in the broad sense of the term is something that all humans practice. We consume resources to survive and we consume goods and services to contribute to aspirational standards of living. In a narrower sense, "consumption" is discussed in terms of the over-consumption of physical resources, which arguably has become a worldwide problem. The globalized economy encourages perpetual growth to maintain economic viability. Unfortunately, this model has become problematic. It largely ignores externalities related to pollution, land degradation, the depletion and exploitation of non-renewable resources, perpetuation and expansion of unhealthy food systems, and the striping away of natural capital on a finite planet.
(CC Image of 2009 U.S. energy production/consumption By U.S. Energy Information Administration (Department of Energy) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The result is that over consumption contributes to the myriad crises we face including global warming, nutrient loading, and biodiversity loss, among others. In short many of our consumption patterns are unsustainable, yet little is being done to remedy the problems.
The irresistible force paradox asks, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Our planet has finite resources. Yet, our planet's economy is overwhelmingly based on perpetual growth and consumption. This problem appears inevitably bound to come to pass at some point. The question is, will it pass after a serious crisis, or will we manage the near-term so that we may avoid a crash?
(CC Image By Travelplanner based on data from UN Development Programme and Global Footprint Network (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons) (Click to enlarge)
The questions surrounding our consumption as it relates to sustainability is one of the most difficult problems we are likely to face in the future. Accepting the fact that we cannot continue as we have, and must make systemic changes in a collective manner will be essential to finding solutions to maintain our cultures, traditions, and way of life. While increasing populations and other nations desire for a higher quality of life is likely to undermine restrictions on consumption, it underscores the need to be proactive on this issue. Ignoring consumptions role in harming the environment and human health directly through scarcity or through industrial and corporate externalities will most likely lead to further climate change and social unrest.
Basic human needs and our understanding of cognition gives us a blueprint of what people around the world need. Sustainability merely points out that if these needs are not met, they will lead to further unsustainable actions. If the rest of the world had the same ecological footprint of the United States, we would need 4.5 Earth's worth of resources to ameliorate that disconnect. Such profound points (seeing as many nations aspire to be like the U.S.) demand action to bring our needs into alignment with what the planet can sustain.