The Crisis of Consumption

By Kevin Ashton

Information can save us from eating, drinking and powering our way to extinction.

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Since I was born in the late 1960s, the world population has doubled. Back then, the average person lived to be 52 years old. Today, the average lifespan is 70. With more of us living longer, our consumption of food, water and other resources is increasing. Food intake, for example, was 800,000 calories per person per year in the late '60s. Today, the average person consumes more than a million calories annually. The amount of water each of us consumes—to drink, bathe and grow all that food—has doubled: from 160,000 gallons per year to nearly 330,000 gallons.

Despite the rise of the Internet and the decline of the newspaper, our use of paper has more than doubled since I was born: from 55 pounds per person annually to 120 pounds. We have more energy-efficient technology, but we also have more technology overall, and more of the world has access to electricity. We used 1,200 kilowatt hours per person per year in 1968, and today we each use 2,900 kilowatt hours. Our consumption of plastic has increased more than fivefold, from 14 pounds per person per year to 75 pounds.

When I was born, climate change was not an issue. Today, no matter what oil-sponsored shills would have us believe, climate change is both real and dangerous, and it is a consequence of our crisis of consumption. Climate change threatens our ability to feed, water and otherwise care for the world's growing population.

This crisis of consumption is the result of good things. More of us are living longer, healthier lives, with enough to eat and drink. Technology helps heal us when we are sick, warm us when we are cold and cool us when we are hot. We're not going to select suffering instead of comfort to avoid the distant danger of extermination from overconsumption.

We cannot consume our way out of our consumption crisis. The answer is, and must be, information. Information is barely physical; it requires only computers, cables and a bit of electricity. A lack of information about the physical world is one big reason we are in this mess in the first place. We cannot clearly see what we have and what we are doing with it—and that results in massive amounts of waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, says leaks account for an average of 10,000 gallons of water wasted in the home every year—enough to fill a backyard swimming pool. Most of us do not know how much water we use personally—or how much of that water we waste, and on what. We can say the same of anything else we consume. If we had access to that information, most of us would waste a lot less.

The system that will capture that information is the ubiquitous network of RFID and sensor technologies called the Internet of Things, which we are building now. And we had better hurry up. By 2100, the world population is expected to double again.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.