A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Consumption and the Environment

April 30, 2001 - 10:00am
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This talk reviews three environmentally-significant forms of consumption: mass flows, energy flows, and land appropriated for human use for a range of human societies.  Consumption levels do not increase uniformly with social evolution, for example, swidden agriculturalists (indigenous farmers who rotate fields within forests) consume the same high level of materials as the average American, whereas hunters and gatherers or floodplain agriculturalists consume 1/10 this amount.  Huge differences in consumption appear to make little or no difference in quality of life, whether measured by subjective life satisfaction, objective measures of nutrition and health, or predominance of migration between adjacent societies.  This study leads to questions of social evolution:  If quality of life can be high with comparatively low material, energy, and land consumption, why have societies at certain stages come to their high throughputs and high land use?  The conclusion of the analysis is not to suggest that earlier social forms provide a model for the future, but that low-consumption societies are possible, that they can be desirable to live in, and that we can learn from both their successes and failures.

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