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Part 3

The lifestyle of the richest 10% is the solution to climate change

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Recently an older man told me about his showers. As a kid, he would sometimes go to the bathhouse with his brother. You could take a hot shower for 15 cents. After 10 minutes of pure luxury, someone would knock on the door because time was over. “What a time. Well, as I’ve always said you should count your blessings.”

This struck me. Count my blessings? I know I live in a rich country, but should I count my warm shower as a blessing? I realised that so much has changed the past 50 years that it’s impossible to count your blessings. We just have too many.

How did we become so rich it’s hard to see what we have?

One answer is technology. But I would say it’s also about outsourcing our factories. With that, something else happened: we have also outsourced our negative impact. In other words, our lifestyles are only possible because people in other parts of the world bear the cost of cheap labour and pollution.

We never stop to think about it because we never see our impact. Our impact is hidden.

The hidden impact of our lives

Most of our planet is covered with water but only 2,5 per cent is without salt. Of that small freshwater pool, 99 per cent is trapped as ice. That leaves us with 0,007 per cent of the Earth’s water to drink, cook, sprinkle the garden, wash, and grow food. [1]

A regular shower uses about 50 litres of water. But one cup of coffee takes 150 litres, a hamburger around 2000 litres [2], and one pair of jeans 7600 litres [3]. That’s because it takes a lot of water to grow coffee beans, feed cows and grow and wash cotton. Unfortunately, the places where cotton and coffee grow usually have water problems already.

This hidden impact also applies to energy. If you swap your old car for a fuel-efficient one, it can take up to 13 years until you’ve saved the energy it costs to produce the new car. [4]

The point is that producing new stuff takes resources and energy. Consumerism is about buying new stuff all the time, which means that the richer you are the higher your impact. That’s why the richest 10% on Earth are responsible for almost half of all carbon dioxide emissions [5]. And if you’re reading this, you are definitely part of that group (calculate here – although that data is 11 years old it still gives an indication).).

If everyone would live like us, we would need three Earths. It sounds abstract but it means our lifestyle is only possible because other people and environments are paying for it. We are ripping them off, even if the products are fair-trade and organic.

I’m not blaming you. You are not guilty of how our economic system developed. But your lifestyle choices matter.

Companies and governments

Calculating CO2 emissions is super complicated and it always depends on your perspective. For example, I’ve seen an article which said that 70% of emissions are from just 100 companies. Or let’s look at countries: China is the biggest polluter of all.

But a more interesting question is whom is China producing for? Of course, their people are getting richer but a lot of their emissions are the result of producing our stuff.

In the last two articles, I discussed why efficiency is not a solution. We have to change our way of life. It’s easy to blame companies and government but I have no faith that they will be the frontrunners of a sustainable society.

If you produce smartphones, the most sustainable action would be producing fewer phones. But you’re a company that has goals about growth and habits of trying to sell more. If there are people buying new phones, you will continue making them.

Let me say one thing very clearly though: this does not mean that companies don’t have a responsibility and it’s all about ‘demand’. Companies have a huge responsibility that they have ignored. I just think it’s a waste of time to expect big companies to bring the change we need. They’re fossils on the verge of extinction.

In the same way, I’m not expecting change to come from governments. Yes, we need better laws and incentives. But politicians lag behind because they worry about what the voters think.

That means it’s up to the voter and consumer. It’s up to us.

Sacrifice?

Hearing all this is not pleasant. It makes us feel guilty and it promotes a frame of sacrifice: the only way to stop climate change is to reject modern life, become vegan and live in a tiny house without electronics.

It’s true that this minimises your carbon footprint. But again the question comes up: wouldn’t the most effective decision be to not live at all?

Like discussed in the previous article, there are also ways to have a positive impact.

A typical week for Julia

Every day of the week my friend Julia is aware that her life is built on negative impacts around the world. She doesn’t fly and goes to conferences with a 20-hour bus ride. She only works three days a week and her shopping options are limited because she only chooses responsible products (this is where companies step in and why creating real value is so important).

It sounds like a depressing life. And yet, she is much happier than the average person.

Julia works for a company that produces machines to reduce food waste. She has purpose in her work and plenty of time to hang out with friends. Every day she is grateful for being part of the richest 10%.

I wouldn’t say she is a minimalist. She just spends her time and money on things she actually cares about. She doesn’t just reduce her negative footprint but the sum of her life creates a positive difference. For me, Julia represents the sort of lifestyle that can reverse climate change and also make us happier.

Conclusion

Our lifestyle feels normal. Like it’s normal to dream of owning a Ferrari and living in a big mansion. But unfortunately, such a lifestyle is neither satisfying nor healthy. The good news is that we don’t have to give up everything. Changing a few habits is enough to make a big difference and it’s likely that this will also make us more grateful for what we have.

More about how can we start that journey next week.

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[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/freshwater-crisis/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/gallery/how-much-water-to-make-food-drink

[3] https://curiosity.com/topics/there-are-2000-gallons-of-water-in-your-jeans-sort-of-curiosity/

[4] Babette Porcelijn – De verborgen impact 

[5] Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris. Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & prospects for an equitable adaptation fund http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2015.pdf


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