How much do we actually consume over the course of our lifetime? Are we so influenced by today's consumer society that we no longer even stop to think before buying consumer goods?
Recently, on a particularly rainy autumn day, I summoned up the energy to get up and drive early in the morning to meditate in the country. For the first time. The six of us were soon sitting in a dojo (Japanese for meditation hall) in the woods and doing Zen meditation. In silence. For 3 whole hours. Just sitting, with our eyes closed and concentrating. Far away from the consumer society – just the rain outside and not a mobile phone anywhere in sight. We then ate together, also in silence. We were served a bowl of wholegrain rice with fried onions and a bowl of miso soup with mushrooms. Slow and silent chewing and slurping followed. Then we cleaned the bowls with slices of radish and green tea, which we then drank up. Not one crumb of the frugal meal was left over.
Turning to asceticism can be quite demanding, I thought when I was saying goodbye.
The day starts with deleting spam
The next day when I started up my laptop, it was the same as usual: first of all, get rid of spam. Still slightly under the influence of the meditation, I suddenly realised how contradictory our society is: we are aware of how valuable our scarce resources are but also consume excessively in a market of surplus:
On the Internet, we are offered “All-you-can-eat” events and flat rates for unlimited uploads and downloads as well as flat-rate postage for deliveries which we can now return free of charge and unopened. There are “Everything-must-go” adverts and Groupon travel bargains. In other words, everything to satisfy our consumption addiction.
The lifestyle of a throwaway society
In my ascetic confusion, I started to google what we actually consume in a lifetime and came across a film which demonstrates this very vividly:
In this film everything that a German uses and consumes in his life is piled up in a field. You are really shocked when you see that pile, or at least stunned. The idea for this film came from England but the German TV company, NDR, adapted it for Germans and their average consumption.
Here are a few (rounded) figures of what our lifestyle means: (all averages)
- During our lifetime we only consume 8,000 apples but 16,000 eggs.
- By the end of our lives we will have used more than 1,000,000 litres of water.
- We spend 12,000 euros on cosmetics containing chemicals that take 800 years to decompose.
- During our lifetime we spend 40,000 euros on clothing; 500 litres of water are required to cultivate the crop and produce one single T-shirt.
- To wash our clothes, we use 635 kg of detergent.
- We produce 35,800 kg of waste during our lifetime.
- On average, we own 9.8 cars with which we travel roughly 820,000 km, using 44,000 litres of petrol. (However, the CO2 emissions of just one long-distance trip are equivalent to the annual emissions of a car)
- During our lifetime we spend 6.2 years in front of the TV. That is just under 2 hours a day.
A person uses more than 1,000,000 litres of water in a lifetime.
However, I have to add here:
1.) The film I am quoting from now was made in 2008. So it’s a bit dated. Today we don’t sit in front of the TV but surf the Internet. The under-30s for even more than 2 hours a day.
2.) Whether you watch TV or go online:
Both figures should be treated with caution: after all who knows whether I am actually watching a TV crime drama or have been sitting in my bath and/or phoning for an hour?
If you allow location access on your phone, you are online. So what? What has that got to do with you actively using your smartphone?
What the film from 2008 naturally also doesn’t say and I would love to know: the actual cost of hosting all the images, texts and films that we mail and stream to and from the rest of the world nowadays. In other words, what are the energy costs of the servers that make all these data available to us consumers?
A flood of data for mass consumption
Just think of this: one of more than 300 images of – possibly? – Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend is hosted 77,800 times on Instagram. There are, however, many more photos of her on Instagram. So there are perhaps 10 million photos of this lady out there – for no other reason than this is – possibly? – Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend. Interest will have evaporated by next year. What will remain are the server costs for all the undeleted copies of one and the same image of this woman. And that does not generate income.
This is also true of millions of selfies and video clips explaining how to open a tube. And all the millions of liked and posted copies of someone’s first cat video. And to be accessed they all need electricity.
In their own interest, couldn’t the companies announce?: “November 1 is again the great deletion day! Everything has to go. We need space for new things. For every 100 MB we can delete from your private account, you get 1 euro as a reward.” I would join in but would still have to put many more articles in the Cloud before I could get my 1 euro.
The film entitled “So viel lebst Du” (original English version: “The Human Footprint”) shows in a spectacular way: we come into the world naked and with an empty stomach and we leave it again on average 79.2 years later with nothing on but our last shirt. In-between we spend a lifetime consuming, in some cases bizarre, things that are produced for us to satisfy our hunger for calories, but above all for variety and change. The philosopher, Richard David Precht, says in the film: “We all want these must-have things to satisfy our EGO, but as soon as we own them, they start to bore us.”
Not exactly a sustainable lifestyle…
In fact, nowadays, we have more possibilities to get new things than ever before. That’s why anyone who offers us consumer goods, such as furniture, suitcases, coats and holiday homes, to last a lifetime, has huge sales problems: We buy what we feel suits us. But when we want to reformat our EGO, we like to chuck out everything that belonged to our old lives.
So, for many people it’s no problem to keep throwing out old things and buying cheap new ones. The next trend is just round the corner and they can be part of it, even with a small budget. That suits the manufacturers of these goods, these “short-lived products”: the new smartphone is already in the pipeline and people are already arguing about what will be next summer’s most fashionable colour.
The annual energy consumption of a Tanzanian is about 1.5% of a European’s consumption
However, it is also only fair to point out that technical consumer goods have a particularly short half-life. Today you can’t possibly work on a PC from 1995 unless you want to use the monitor just as lighting.
When I closed up my laptop, I thought to myself: asceticism and giving up consumption completely are not for me, either. But it does no harm to sit down now and again and think about how we are living today. For example, about the fact that the annual personal consumption of energy of a Tanzanian is 95 kWh. And that of a European is 5,836 kWh.