Saturday, June 6, 2015

Finding sustainability in consumption

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 2015-06-06, Insight

A Sri Lankan labourer transports drinking water in Colombo on May 27, 2015, The authorities have announced an eight-hour water cut across Sri Lanka’s capital to carry out urgent repairs at a time when the city is facing the hottest time of the year | (AFP)

This year’s World Environment Day fell on June 5 (Friday). The theme this year is sustainable consumption and production.

The slogan selected for This year’s World Environment Day is ‘Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care’. There is more than seven billion people living in this single planet, and hence consume carefully. This highlights a crucial, but neglected environmental aspect of the day of modern world.

Current consumption and production rates of many of the consumables of the world are unsustainable. The concept of ecological debt day describes the approximate calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. In 2014, it was on August 19. Current consumption rates indicate that the world will need more than one earth to provide the necessities of people. This threatens the goal of sustainable development, which emphasizes the need of wise use while saving resources for the future generations.

There is some important aspect of this, i.e. the role of the individual. We use and purchase various materials that are produced using various resources obtained from our environment. Our choices and amounts we consume directly affect the resources of the world. The more we consume, more resources will be used.

Water, food and energy are among the key resources that are over consumed by people in the world. In addition, many minerals, metals etc. are also used by humans at increased rates that threaten their sustainable use. Let’s look at the picture in detail.

Water Use

We consume water for many of needs, such as drinking, cooking, sanitation, agriculture etc. We often use water rather than what we need for these use. For instance, using a bathtub requires 3 times more water than a typical shower. In agriculture, paddy farmers use more water than required for their crops, due to lack of understanding, and this can reduce water for downstream areas. Farmers as well as gardeners often water the crops during the wrong time of the day, causing water waste. We live in a world where more than 1 billion of the population lives in water stress. We experience water stress even in Sri Lanka, during the driest months of the year and in the dry zone of the country. Many of us have heard of the announcements requesting to be cautious in using water in our houses during dry seasons. Meanwhile the lifestyle of developed world needs more water use than the developing nations. For instance, per capita water withdrawal per year in 2005 was 1583 cubic meters for USA, while it was 638 in Sri Lanka.

Food overconsumption

Food is another resource that needs the attention of the people. Food production requires various resources – land, water, fertilizer, energy etc. More food consumption means more production and requires more land, more water and other inputs.

As individual consumers, we have a responsibility to purchase food in correct amounts that is sufficient for the family. This can reduce food waste. The origin of food is an important aspect as long distance transport can increase the carbon footprint of food. In addition, overconsumption of food can create a range of health problems. Increased food consumption can increase the price of food items and can affect food security of the world, which can be serious with other factors. As in water, amount of food consumed and amount of food waste is higher in the rich countries, often causing food shortages in other countries.

Post-harvest waste is a severe issue that cause monetary and resource losses. In Sri Lanka this loss amounts to 30%-40% of total food production, and the use of plastic crates introduced few years ago in Sri Lanka and created a controversy, was an attempt to reduce this loss.


Energy, especially electricity, is another resource that is commonly over consumed by the consumers, due to the negligence of the consumers. People still use more electricity than they need – unnecessary bulbs, forgetting to switch off fans, televisions when not in use are typical examples. There are various best practices that save electricity and then money in the pocket highlighted in various awareness programs. Other than this, part of the power in Sri Lanka is generated using fossil fuels that are finite and cause air pollution.

Other than the above mentioned resources, many environmental resources are being over exploited by humans at present. Some of the metals and mineral resources are expected to be exhausted within few decades or centuries. Hence we have to be cautious in selecting materials for consumption. Whether it is water, food, other consumable or something else, we have to re think of two aspects; its necessity, whether we need it and the amount we require and our choice – whether the choices made by us are resource efficient with lesser ecological footprints.

Sustainable development is the accepted development model followed by the world. To be in line with that, we also have to be cautious of what we do and what we do not do, since that will save adequate resources for other people as well as the next generation.

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