We need to stop talking about the climate crisis. Because it’s much more than that. It’s an over-consumption crisis.
And we need to start calling it what it is, if we’re to have any chance of solving the problem.
Language matters, and there is plenty of debate about whether we should be talking about climate change, the climate emergency, or the climate crisis.
But what if we’ve got it all wrong? What if that’s missing the point?
What if that’s setting us up to lurch from crisis to crisis, always firefighting?
What if we’re focusing on the symptom, not the root cause?
And what if — by focusing on the very real problems of climate change — we miss what else is going on?
Because we don’t just have a climate crisis. The climate crisis is simply one symptom of a bigger problem.
Imagine you go to hospital with a bleeding head wound. The doctor focuses on fixing it, without investigating the cause. That means she doesn’t think about what other problems might be going on.
But you hit your head when you fell.
And the reason you fell is you are having a heart attack.
Of course, in the real world your doctor wouldn’t simply focus on a symptom. She would take it on board, and set about fixing it — but first, she would determine the cause.
Saying that you hit your head because you fell is a bit like saying we have a climate crisis because we produce too much carbon dioxide.
The doctor needs to understand why you fell; and we need to answer the question of why we’re emitting so much carbon dioxide.
The climate crisis is happening because we take too much from our planet. We demand more from the earth than it’s resources can provide.
The root cause of the climate emergency is an over-consumption crisis.
But changing our language isn’t about semantics or pedantry.
It’s about correctly defining the problem. Just like the doctor — if we don’t tackle the right problem, we won’t solve it.
Our crises are symptoms, not separate problems
The scale of what we’re dealing with is overwhelming. There are environmental crises all around us.
We have a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis — what the UN and others call ‘the twin crises’.
But we also have plastic pollution, and deforestation for palm oil, the bleaching of the coral reefs, and even the loss of green spaces to make way for theme parks and railways.
These seem like different problems. Each competes for our attention. And the solutions for each often seem contradictory.
To have so many problems, and when solving one problem triggers another, is too hard to deal with.
But when we start to understand that these are not separate problems — that they are symptoms of the same problem — the solutions immediately become clearer. One problem is infinitely more manageable than several.
Changing the language we use simplifies the problem. It makes it easier for people to act upon. And it makes us all accountable for our behaviours and decisions, every single day.
We are all part of the problem — and the solution
Climate change happens to future generations; in far away rainforests and on polar ice caps. It’s hypothetical and distant — deniable, even — affecting others in intangible, hard-to-imagine ways. It’s not part of our everyday lives.
Over-consumption is the opposite.
Over-consumption happens in our kitchens, our wardrobes, our journeys, our decisions. It’s here and now. It’s real.
It’s about the new phone when the old one was fine; the jeans that need a stitch instead of replacement. It’s about whether you really need that house renovation or that quick trip to the shops; the limp lettuce in the back of the fridge or the second foreign holiday in a year. It’s even about the slice of cake that you know you don’t need.
Framed like this, it becomes easier to take responsibility — and to strive to be part of the solution.
The ‘solutions’ are making people switch off
Customers stare hopelessly at the supermarket shelves as they try to decide between the plastic wrapped organic produce, or the loose fruit that’s been flown in from South America; between the oat milk in a hard-to-recycle container, or the dairy milk in glass. What’s the point of trying to do good when you feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
It’s too hard; people give up trying.
Householders give up on separating their recycling when they read in the newspapers that it gets rejected and sent to landfill — what’s the point?
The coffee shop owner who proudly buys expensive compostable coffee cups. A significant investment for a business that works on tight margins — but in his eyes it’s the right thing to do, so he’s prepared to take the hit.
Imagine his frustration at learning that the cups won’t compost in landfill. That, as waste, they’ll still sit there, simply part of a different pollution problem.
“What’s the point?” he exclaims with frustration.
Can we really be surprised if, next time he faces a similar issue, he simply doesn’t bother?
But the reason it’s so confusing and hard is because we’re tackling symptoms, not the root cause. The compostable coffee cups are the result of focusing on the plastics symptom. The mixed recycling is an attempt to tackle the waste symptom. The food issues encompass climate change, social issues, plastics, biodiversity…
The basis of all these problems is the same.
When we recognise that over-consumption is the root cause, we realise that swapping a single use plastic cup for a single use paper cup is neither use nor ornament.
If we consume less, we create less waste, reducing the pressure on the recycling systems.
When we recognise that over-consumption has caused the breakdown of our food system, all those symptoms stop looking like separate problems.
Trying to reduce our impact when we carry on with business as usual feels impossible. And that’s because it is. It’s only when we reduce our consumption that the problems become solvable.
We’re weary of crises
In the last 30 years, we have lurched from one environmental problem to the next. Acid rain, CFCs and the ozone layer, panda extinction, over-fishing…
And we’ve become tired. A common refrain is “Well they predicted x by 2020 and that didn’t happen, so why should I believe them this time?”
That’s a sure sign of someone who has had enough.
When we’re fatigued we stop trying. We’re beaten down. We can’t face yet another problem. Someone who’s just starting to get to grips with climate change really doesn’t want to add biodiversity into the mix. It’s too much.
Focusing on climate change takes our eye off the ball
This week there was an online discussion about whether we should have pets, because of their carbon footprint. One participant argued that it was fine, because “When we reach net zero, we’ll have saved the planet”.
The focus on climate change risks ignoring everything else. We take our eye off the ball. It would be a bitter pill if our focus on climate change meant that the sixth great extinction happens and we barely even notice — until it’s too late.
And yet this graphic shows exactly how much of a problem we have.
The reality is that climate change is a pressing emergency. But when we treat the symptoms as separate problems, they compete for our attention. And we allow the climate change symptom to distract us from the biodiversity symptom.
We create solutions that cause more problems
There are too many ‘solutions’ which shift the problem rather than solve it. Too often, we create new problems when we solve the old ones.
If you want to reduce emissions, it makes sense to switch from fossil fuelled cars to electric cars. But electric car batteries need lithium and cobalt; and extracting these brings its own issues around pollution, water scarcity and destroying fragile, important ecosystems.
Making single use nappies that are recyclable makes sense, if you’re worried about the waste problem.
But when you reframe the problem as an over-consumption problem, it looks somewhat different.
A baby needs around 6,000 nappy changes. If you use reusable nappies, you can do that with about 20 nappies — which can be passed on to two, three, four or five siblings and friends.
That means there’s a choice:
- manufacture, transport, wash and eventually repurpose 20 reusable nappies.
- or manufacture, transport, collect, transport, clean, sort, re-process and transport 30,000 single use nappies — recycling them into yet more low quality goods that are likely to be so low grade that they need to be sent to landfill.
When we think about plastic pollution, it’s clear that we have a single use plastic problem. But when we work within the framework of over-consumption, it becomes obvious that swapping one single use product — nappies, straws, ketchup sachets, cups — for another doesn’t work. It simply moves the problem.
Even for such an obvious solution as solar panels, the solution looks different when we reframe the problem from climate to over-consumption. The energy source — the sun — is renewable and clean. But what happens to the panels at the end of their life? The obvious answer is to use less energy, so that we need fewer panels.
The solutions become easier when we reframe the problem
The crazy thing is, that, whilst billions are spent on “technological” and “innovative” solutions for our multiple problems, there is already a solution out there.
A solution that really will tackle climate change — and biodiversity loss, and everything else.
The UN said in 2018 — in relation to climate change — that urgent and unprecedented change is needed. Behaviour as normal is not an option.
And yet that is not where the focus is. The focus is on ‘green growth’, technology and innovation.
Manufacturers, scared about the bottom line, want us to switch from fossil fuelled cars to electric cars. When we realise that it’s an over-consumption problem, that no longer looks like a solution. The real solution is to have fewer cars, to make cars smaller, to keep cars for longer, and to drive less.
The single-use nappy manufacturers, spending millions on developing energy-intensive recycling of used nappies, no longer look like planet saviours when you’re facing an over-consumption crisis.
Recycling is often seen as a solution to the waste problem. But when we realise we have an over-consumption problem, it becomes obvious that recycling has never been a solution. It’s a sticking plaster, at best.
And if recycling is a sticking plaster; then paper cups and ketchup sachets are a distraction.
Reducing consumption is the starting point. When we sort that then we are no longer distracted by ‘business as usual’ solutions like developing paper that can hold fluids or capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Instead, we get to focus our innovation and tech on the hard-to-solve issues where there is genuine need for our attention; like creating alternatives to steel or cement.
It becomes harder for cynics to game the system
There is too much green washing. Products which claim to be green because they tackle a single issue. Tricks and get-outs allow businesses to talk the talk, without walking the walk.
It’s easy to peddle a solution-that-isn’t-a solution when we’re tackling a symptom.
But when we tackle the root cause that becomes much harder.
Lundin Energy recently sold the first ever “carbon neutral oil”. It makes a mockery of offsetting, of net zero, and of climate ‘action’. But Lundin will get away with it, because we’re led to believe that carbon neutral is a solution.
Of course, it’s not. Just as recycling can only ever be a sticking plaster for the waste problem; offsetting can only ever be a sticking plaster for the oil and gas industry.
When we realise it’s over-consumption, it’s much harder to side-step the real solution.
‘What we have to do’ becomes simple
Every week sees a new iteration of ‘tips to save the planet’. They’re well meaning, and sometimes useful. But people feel like they’re being preached to, and they find the scale overwhelming. There are too many messages to take on board.
But if we look at the list through the lens of over-consumption, it becomes less jumbled, less overwhelming:
What happens when we consume less?
Sometimes simple solutions bring added benefits.
It’s well known that people with fewer possessions are happier, that children with fewer toys play better; and that once we’ve reached a degree of financial security then money can’t buy happiness.
When we talk about reducing consumption, it doesn’t mean we have to live in caves.
But imagine a world where we consume less ‘stuff’. Where we spend less time buying, tidying, organising and chucking things.
Where, instead of consuming around 50% more calories a day than we need, we eat less and beat obesity.
Where we become happier — less dependent on products and more focused on family, friends and experiences.
Will you stand up and be counted?
There are many businesses for whom this reframing is problematic. It’s easy to claim ‘sustainable’ whilst continuing as normal, if you’ve swapped conventional cotton for sustainable cotton and you’re still releasing a new fast fashion collection every few weeks.
But if you acknowledge the root cause is over-consumption, it becomes far harder to continue to promote ‘buy for the sake of it’; to burn your returns; and to make clothes so badly that they fall apart after one wear.
But that is why it is essential to reframe the problem.
So that businesses which buy a few carbon offsets, whilst continuing with business as usual, are acknowledged as part of the problem instead of lauded as part of the solution.
So that businesses which embrace this as a disruption — a transition, a time to adapt and evolve — are the market leaders. If Asda can sell second hand clothes alongside new clothes; if Rolls-Royce can ‘rent’ through Power By The Hour, then others too can adopt models that encourage reuse, refurbishment and low impact.
So that as individuals we stop buying stuff. We stop waiting to be saved, and instead start taking planet-respecting decisions and actions all day, every day.
An over-consumption problem encapsulates all of the symptoms experienced by our environment. It puts behaviour change at the heart of the solution. It is tangible and real, it is part of everyday life and decision making. It is simple. It is easy to understand, to spot, to act upon, and to reject.
So please, let’s start telling it like it is.
This isn’t about climate change, a biodiversity emergency, or plastic pollution.
This is an over-consumption crisis.