Aggregation: The Key Concept of Environmentalism

When it comes to climate change, we often focus more on the effects than the complex causes behind it. We think about the key aspects from news headlines: ozone layer depletion, rising water levels, and carbon dioxide emissions. Typically, we don’t talk as much about the causes, and if we do, we talk about business practices like deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, and the byproducts of all the various industries. But we must think broader about what is actually causing climate change. The key to a better understanding of climate change, and therefore potential solutions, is the concept of aggregation. 

Aggregation means the buildup of many distinct parts into a mass. Mass in this sense refers to the effects of climate change, but what are the distinct parts? The distinct parts include every instance that leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc…), which we’ll call the primary effects. These also involve the instances that exacerbate the secondary effects, such as soil depletion, water insecurity, biodiversity loss, and much more

The exacerbation of secondary effects includes every time a fossil fuel is burned, from an airliner on a transcontinental flight to a drive across town with a combustion engine vehicle. The challenge for human beings is being able to comprehend a problem that is so interdisciplinary, complex, and extensive that it surpasses any one field of knowledge and extends into nearly every sphere of life, such as energy, economics, public policy, communications, education, and culture.

Therefore, it is essential that we approach this problem with aggregation in mind. We must understand that the problem is the accumulation (i.e., the aggregate) of every instance that produces emissions. We must understand that the consequences of this problem will proliferate into existence threatening issues like potential water crises, agricultural failure, and biodiversity loss. We must understand that these problems might cause many political issues among nations, particularly in the low-income countries which will suffer most heavily from climate change. Among other issues, this could initiate refugee crises which would also be a significant problem for high-income countries. Finally, and possibly most importantly, we must understand that the solutions will have to be aggregated — that is, made of many distinct parts that transcend any one field.

It cannot be understated that there is absolutely no sense in waiting, hesitating, or lingering on these issues unless the time is spent on real deliberation rather than doubtful stalling. We know there’s a serious problem that the human race has never seen before. It isn’t rational that we should continue living the same way. The consequences would be disastrous if we waited for a real catastrophe to start taking solutions seriously. If you’re speeding toward a brick wall at 90 miles per hour, you don’t wait until you hit the wall before slamming on the brakes. 

What does it mean for the solutions to be aggregated? It means that there will be no single solution, no one policy, or one big change that will save us from the fragile stability of the environment that grants us life. If the problem is caused by millions of separate instances, the solutions will have to address them piecemeal.

The aggregation concept is behind both the very high total and the per capita ecological footprint of the United States. To clarify, a country’s ecological footprint is the calculation of the ‘use of productive surface areas’, which includes cropland, fisheries, forest area, as well as the carbon demand of the land. Why does the U.S. have one of the highest ecological footprints per capita, even beating out China? The reason for our high footprint are the aggregate effects of consumption. The amount of electricity, fossil fuels, raw materials, energy, and water used for the average American’s lifestyle is far higher than the rest of the world. Compared with the United States’ per capita ecological footprint (8.22 global hectares (gha) per person), Germany’s is 5.3 gha per person, China’s is 3.38 gha per person, and Brazil’s is 3.11 gha per person. American consumption amounts to a far higher rate than the rest of the world, even other high-income countries. This matters because we are far exceeding biocapacity, the ‘productivity of ecological assets’ of the Earth’s surface. This means that the unsustainable lifestyle of American consumers represents an ecological footprint that grossly oversteps the sustainability of our environment and, therefore, our capacity to feed and provide water for ourselves in the future. 

The primary focus of this article is the negative aggregate effect of consumption (and, therefore, consumerism) on our climate. As American consumers, we must think about the aggregate of our consumer actions and reconsider unnecessary uses of energy, electricity, water, gasoline, raw materials, and other resources. Consumption provides the incentive for businesses to continue tearing down forests, making species go extinct, over-exhausting soil, and causing other problems for the world. Business supplies the demand. 

So, before we blame the businesses, we must think first whether we are actively consuming things we don’t need to consume and providing the incentive for the problem. Though it is largely big business that is behind harmful practices, we must remind ourselves that businesses don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist for markets, and markets consist of consumers. If no one gave money to McDonalds, for example, they wouldn’t have the revenue to continue deforesting the Amazon. If we want to slow down supply, consumers must consciously lower demand. Whether or not the government changes policy to force businesses to cut their practices and therefore lower the supply, consumers will inevitably have to undergo changes in their habits. Are we going to wait for the government to attempt to fix the problem or fix it ourselves? 

We can do this by foregoing unnecessary products, cutting out the inessentials, baring some marginal inconvenience, and, all in all, consuming less. We do this because we are aware of our effect in the aggregate. We are aware that we are part of the problem and that the solution lies in lifestyle changes. This is where those who say they care about the environment can prove it. So now the question you should be asking yourself is, how can I help reduce the harmful aggregate of consumption? 

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