The idea that humans could cause extensive and irreversible damage to the entire planet was once inconceivable. The thought would not have occurred to anyone in 1800 or 1900 or even 1950. It is only in the last three decades, as we have acquired increasing precision about environmental data—present and historical—that we have begun to understand what we have done.
In the previous two chapters, I first explained how the climate crisis can only have arisen from human activity, as no other explanation makes any sense; and then I hopefully brought home the real, tangible costs of the crisis. Here I would like to explain further what these human behaviors are that actually caused the crisis, and how they came to be pervasive.
The story has three parts. They are tightly interlinked, though I treat them here as distinct and separate elements. I've hidden some text below so you can reach the third and most important part, the one that is truly in our hands, quickly.
Step 1: Cheap plentiful energy from fossil fuels
Together three fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—form the trifecta of fossil fuels that have produced the majority of global warming. But back at the turn of the 20th century, they seemed overwhelmingly plentiful and harmless, if sometimes dirty.
Railroads and cheap cars powered by electricity and petroleum allowed people to move around much more easily and cheaply. Maybe even more importantly, cheap transportation also allowed goods to move around—suddenly people in rural areas could receive mail, medicine, and manufactured goods quickly and people in urban areas could access broader food stores and building materials.
The U.S. government's large-scale infrastructure projects during the Great Depression and after World War II were intertwined with the burgeoning fossil fuel industries—measures like the Rural Electrification Act expanded access to fossil fuel-dependent energy and the fossil fuel industries received major subsidies from the government for further development. Plastics, computer infrastructure, jet and space travel—these were are all made possible by cheap fossil fuels.
In 1900, 2 percent of American households had access to electricity. By 1955, 99 percent of those households had access to electricity produced in natural gas- or coal-powered plants. Even more impressive, depending on your perspective, is that the cost of electricity fell from $4.79 per kilowatt-hour in 1902 to $0.32 in 1950. This allowed people to extend their active hours in the day. It powered heating and cooling systems so that people were no longer limited by the extreme cold or heat of their environment. And it powered appliances like refrigerators and ovens that reduced the amount of time and energy people needed to expend just to feed themselves.
Step 2: Rapid population growth
So now we understand a bit more about the fossil fuels that produce emissions when burned. Now let's turn to the demand for them. There are two parts to that demand—one is the rising levels of consumption per capita. I will get to that right after I talk about the second part, which is the sheer number of "capitas" (= people!) occupying the planet.
The Earth’s population is now 7.8 billion — up from 1 billion in 1800 and 2.5 billion in 1950. These numbers are simply extraordinary. As David Quammen has written, “We are unique… no other species of large-bodied beast—above the size of an ant—has ever achieved anything like such abundance as the abundance of humans on Earth right now.”
Over the last 200 years, we have populated virtually every habitable corner of the planet.
For much of human history, high birth rates were matched by high death rates. But while stabilization of food supplies and improvements to medical knowledge have dramatically lowered the death rate, high birth rates on average continue. This pattern is called demographic transition, and various parts of the world have gone through this transition over the last two centuries. The global population growth rate reached its peak of 2.2 percent in the period of post-World War II prosperity, and the world population doubled in just 37 years from 1950 to 1987.
You may have read that the percent of fossil fuels that make up our total energy consumption is declining. It's true—but only as the total demands for energy skyrocket. With so many people on our planet, the magnitude of resources demanded has ballooned. In the last 100 years, fossil fuel consumption has grown 10 times as large as they once were. And in just that period from 1950 to 1987 when the world's population doubled, global fossil fuel consumption quadrupled.
And the demand is not just for fossil fuels like oil and coal. Demand for wood and charcoal, which long ago became a small portion of the world's energy sources, is still higher than ever before, and is a major cause of forest degradation, reducing the number of trees available to absorb some of our increasingly absurd carbon emissions.
I believe that the population will hit its peak and shrink far faster than all currently accepted projections. There will be enormous hand-wringing as this happens, but it is unquestionably a good thing for the planet. It will require a remaking of human society to deal with an aging population—but that is happening at the precise moment that more and more automation can help serve that population. I write about this in some more detail in the appendix.
Some carbon emissions seem inescapable in order to get the entire world population to a reasonable quality of life. But some are the result of the final factor I am presenting here—consumption beyond what is needed for a comfortable life.
There are a lot of us, and we are all conditioned to consume a certain way.
Step 3: Unchecked pursuit of consumption
The consumption I am talking about is related to the unlimited pursuit of power and wealth, which is then used in ways that destroy the planet.
I want to be really clear here—this is not a rant about inequity and injustice; it is not a diatribe against capitalism or the accumulation of wealth; it is not an attack on personal initiative and “progress” and “freedom”. I am focused here on carbon emissions that arise from certain modes of behavior.
I'll use the example of the United States once again, both because it is often held up as a role model for other nations and because there is more data available. But the same logic applies anywhere in the world.
From 1900 to 1920, 80 percent of the average American household's paycheck went towards necessities like housing, food, and clothing. Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II were also famously frugal. But throughout the century, more and more of the American budget has been spent on things we don't need (often financed through personal debt). Since the 1980s, half of the share of American expenditures is on non-necessities.
In 1945, there were about two cars for every 10 people in the U.S. In 2014, there were eight cars for every ten people, more than anywhere else in the world. And while people in the first half of the 20th century believed reducing food waste was a civic responsibility, today, we throw away about 30-40 percent of our food supply.
A lot of this has to do with the idea that we need a lot of stuff—a lot of big stuff—to be happy, a notion that was especially pushed in post-World War II society.
After we reached the threshold of having enough, though, retailers needed to find another way to keep people buying. The retail analyst Victor Lebow captured this mentality of consumer capitalism in 1955 when he wrote, "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."
This was the age of the Mad Men, when marketers sold a very particular image of a fulfilling life to Americans. In order to be happy, they suggested, one had to acquire ever-increasing amounts of stuff that was supposed to guarantee comfort and social status on par with their neighbors'. The desire to "keep up with the Joneses" is an example of what the French-American historian and social scientist René Girard called "mimetic desire," in which one derives their desires from the people around them, rather than from their own impulses or from the objective quality of an object or experience.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire," he wrote, "and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” It wasn't that people really needed a new car, a big house in the suburbs, and top-notch appliances. But if their neighbors had it, they wanted it too. There was no end, though—when the economy demands that things be consumed "at an ever-accelerating rate," as Lebow, the retail analyst, said, "keeping up with the Joneses" becomes a never-ending project—and a recipe for over-consumption.
Americans got a taste of just how much we were over-consuming during the oil crises of the 1970s, spurring the passage of energy conservation laws and the creation of the Department of Energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil (and fossil fuels in general). This was the point when scientists started to realize the impact that overconsumption was having on the planet—the term "global warming" was coined by a scientist at Columbia University in 1975. But the lesson was soon forgotten when energy prices dropped in the 1980s, and the clarion call of climate action was ignored for several more decades.
Again, I am not making a philosophical or religious or cultural or social point here, although virtually all religions and philosophies argue for moderation (more on that in the appendix) and not being attached to material things, and consumption is also intertwined with various cultural wars. I am interested here in our planet and climate, and the point is that the relentless pursuit of “bigger” and “more” is driving our planet into a metaphorical ditch.
I’m going to pick an extreme example to make the point.
There is an American family that is very visibly committed to fighting the climate crisis with their wealth and philanthropy.
As you will have guessed even if you didn't click the links, the family is the Gates family, and the photo above is of Bill and Melinda's main house (prior to their divorce in 2021).
Again, this is not a statement about morality. It is a statement about climate and sustainability. Our entire society is built around these aspirations, and at one level I feel a certain sadness and sympathy for the Gateses; this is after all what society has told them about how to "perform" success. And that is what society laid out for me, in all my decades of aspirational overconsumption until I held the mirror up to myself, as I wrote in the introduction.
Sure we all desire a nice house—I live in one and I’m not moving to a mud cave any time soon, thank you—but we don’t need multiple houses, and they don’t need to be especially large. One of the easiest and most important things we can do for the planet is to not have a home bigger than what we might actually need to be comfortable.
You might say: this is just a handful of the uber-wealthy. But you’d be wrong (although I will talk about the affluent in more detail later on). In the developed world, many of us have too much stuff. And our habit of over-consumption begins at an early age. 3.1 percent of the world’s children live in the US yet they consume 40 percent of the world’s toys. In the UK, a typical child has almost 240 toys but plays with a mere 12 “favorites” per day. The average American home has doubled in size since the 1950s, and as a nation, we spend more on shoes, jewelry, watches, clothes, and shoes than on higher education. To further boggle the mind: we also throw away nearly 70 lbs of clothing per person per year.
In order to support these levels of consumption, energy producers have used increasingly invasive methods, like fracking, to secure fossil fuels. And even at the rate that we are using fossil fuels right now, we have a 50-year supply of oil, 40-year supply of natural gas, and 70-year supply of coal.
The most fundamental issue, then, is our level of consumption. That is not self-correcting.
It's the relentlessness of consumer culture in the affluent West, emulated and modeled now globally, built on cheap fossil fuels, and multiplied by billions of humans—really it is not a surprise that our planet is where it is.
At what is the root of our unprecedented ability to damage the planet? Technology. Because technology is also the basis for some of the solutions I propose in this book, we need to understand its contributions to the climate crisis.
History of energy consumption
- Book | Energy and Civilization: A History
- Book | Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption
- Interactive Visualization | Visualization of US Energy Consumption
Consumption and mimetic desire
Advertising and commodification