Give and Take in a World Rapidly Embracing the Americum lifestyle

Oct 23, 2017

Holistic living may be envisioned as a ‘net zero-impact lifestyle,’ meaning that what wetake from this world should be equal to what we give, during our period of earthly existence. If we are to live harmoniously in this world, we have to be considerate of not only our fellow human beings, but all living things which form part of our environment. In the world of today, one may think it is impossible to follow this principle of anrishamsya1. I certainly cannot say I do. Before the emergence of religion in human society, there was only one way of life or dharma2. It meant living harmoniously with the rest of the world. All humans strive for better living, and each one is entitled to it, but can we do it at the expense of others or the environment? Can we achieve mukti (salvation), by having a better lifestyle and leaving our offsprings’ world in a condition any less than what we enjoy today? All of us strive to leave behind a better existence for our young ones, but are we really doing that? Is there equivalence between ‘what we take and what we give?’ 

The word Americum used in the title of this article was coined by Tom Burke of the E3G, an organization that works in the public interest to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. Americum can be described as a unit of energy consumed by an inhabitant of this world with a per capita income of $ 15,000 or more and having a growing penchant for consumerism. The latter word is at the heart of the issue of give and take. How do we figure out how much we take from this world? What are our needs? The basic needs of a human being, primarily in the form of food, range from 2 to 2.5 kcal/day. An average Americum food component amounts to 3.5 to 4 kcal/day. This is very small compared to the total energy consumption, in an Americum lifestyle, which is 216,000 kcal/day3. This energy is used to keep ourselves warm, move from one place to other, produce all the amenities we need in our day to day life like electronics, clothes, entertainment, etc. This is the overall ‘take’ component. What about the ‘give’ component? In this world of distributed workforce, that can be difficult to decipher. In the pre-industrial age, when most humans were farmers, calculating it was a bit easier. A farmer would grow his crop, use animal labor, feed his family as well as the labor force with the food produced, recycle animal manure resulting in a relatively closed-loop, sustainable cycle. Human civilization relied on agriculture from 7000 BC up to the 19th century, when the green revolution and industrial machines started to shift the balance in the cycle. In the last 200 years the balance in every human practice is tilting. Can one quantify this imbalance? Let us look at three basic ‘take’ components: travel, food and electricity use. 

I travel 40 miles/day by automobile. This is equivalent to generating 36 pounds of trash or waste (in this case, carbon dioxide, which is the gas released into the environment - an invisible trash). It is like throwing a pound of trash every mile one drives, as reported by Tom Friedman in his book ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’. Are we doing enough through our daily activities, be it via serving a patient, selling a product, producing food, working in a store or industry or generating new technology, to compensate for what we take in as resources? Are we giving back enough to return those 36 pounds of trash to a harmless product? How could one possibly evaluate that? Well, here is some simplification. For compensating 40 miles/day of travel (36 pounds of trash), one would have to contribute to growing 18 pounds of plant matter per day. In other words, one has to generate 0.45 pounds of plant matter (to eliminate 0.9 pounds of trash) for every mile one drives. Am I in some way helping this world to do that? If not, I am causing an imbalance. I am taking more from my child’s environment than what I am giving! I wonder if I do enough to even generate one pound of plant matter per day or compensate in other ways to return the products I generate to usable resources.

The second component that may be considered is food. The average daily food intake of an Americum lifestyle is 3750 calories. A vegetarian diet requires about ten-fold energy to generate it, while a meat-based diet requires about eighty-fold energy to generate the same amount of calories4. While the energy required for food generation may seem high, it is only one percent of the travel component of an Americum lifestyle.

The third component is the electricity use. The daily household energy use in an Americum lifestyle is 18 kWh or about 4 kWh per person5. That is equivalent to 3400 kcal per day per person. This generates about 14 pounds of invisible trash per person per day. One would have to generate 7 pounds of plant biomass per day to compensate for the daily electricity used.

One may argue that one cannot possibly produce 25+ pounds of plant biomass per day and that, it is the job of the government to figure out how to do that. One may also think that paying for fuel may cover that. Unfortunately, it does not.

A country’s progress is typically indicated by gross domestic product (GDP). However, it does not account for sustainable conditions of growth (i.e. balanced give and take). GDP only takes into account purely monetary exchanges. An alternate index, Green Progress Index (GPI), which uses a broad set of 51 economic, environmental and social indicators, has been proposed.6 While the GDP for US and UK has been increasing over the last 30 years, the GPI has shown a reverse trend.

In a democratic society, people control the emergence and approval of new laws and legislation. It is understandable that one may not want to spend money out of their own pockets to implement expensive counter measures (e.g. solar, geothermal technologies)but helping the government to promote development of viable solutions is completely in the hands of individual people. Politicians who have tried to do anything about it do not usually receive sufficient support. Going back to the issue of give and take, and one’swillingness to pursue holistic living, one has to find ways to compensate for what one takes from the world. The first thing to do may simply be to understand the imbalance between the give and take components. The problems faced by the human society today are gigantic. Solutions cannot be possibly implemented at an individual level, but the decision-making to do something about it has to be at an individual level.

As the rest of the world (starting with China and India) embraces the Americum lifestyle, resources are depleting and energy is becoming expensive. The average energy consumption of this earth’s inhabitant is 56,000 kcal per day3, about 20% of the Americum lifestyle. The demand by Chinese and Indians for the Americum lifestyle means a 10-fold increase in world energy demand. Is there any other way, besides balancing our own give and take components, i.e., a holistic living lifestyle, to carve the path for a bright future for our descendents?

- Abhijeet P. Borole, Ph.D.