Another thought for the holidays!


Consumption is the root of many environmental problems. Our demands for the latest and greatest items require more resources from around the globe to produce them. This fact comes to light at this time of year when people are focused on shopping for gifts. Advertisements for new products are everywhere – television, newspapers, magazines, emails, web sites. It is tough to avoid them – dare I say impossible? We are inundated with messages to “buy, buy, buy” throughout the year, but when Thanksgiving comes around the unavoidable barrage increases.

My purpose is not to discuss the true spirit of Christmas or the commercialization of Christmas, but rather to get you to think about the production of all these items – gifts for loved ones and decorations to display your Christmas spirit to the world. Sit back and think for a few minutes about what is required to manufacture the items.

Many items we buy are made of plastic and electronic. Most plastics are made from petroleum, and electronics require metals, some of them rare. To obtain these resources we drill the ocean floors, fracture the earth’s crust, deforest the land, and remove mountaintops. For example, metals are extracted from the earth through mining and smelting. Mining disturbs the land – degrading habitats for wildlife, contaminating water resources, and contaminating the air. Not to mention the energy resources that are expended to power the machinery to do all the work – again more resources extracted from the earth.

My point is very clear. The more we demand, the more we degrade the environment – creating problems for future generations to resolve. The problems are not only environmental. The political problems are just as daunting. How can we get across this message?

There are calculators that determine ecological footprints. Generally defined as the amount of land and ocean area required to sustain your consumption patterns and absorb your wastes on an annual basis, ecological footprints give people an idea of the significance of the consumption issue. These estimates can be very shocking.

This fall I asked my conservation biology class to calculate their footprints. They could not believe that the results. According to the calculators, all had lifestyles that demanded multiple planets to meet their needs. Some required five, six and even seven planets. In previous classes, students responded with statements such as, “it can’t be true, I’m a vegetarian” or “I recycle”. It is a great way to reflect on all the other things we do to encourage consumption.

Try it yourself! There are many free online calculators. Check out your footprint at or to see how many planets your lifestyle demands.

Finally, keep in mind that we desire to raise the standard of living for people in developing nations. Can you imagine seven billion people living like us?

About Dr. Jerry Kavouras

Dr. Jerry Kavouras is Professor and Chair of Biology at Lewis University. He can be found on LinkedIn as well.

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