Money and Our Planet: How do we squander them? Let us count the ways
by Theresa Peluso
Part 1: Food, Shelter and Transportation
Did you know that Canadian families now have the highest level of household debt since records were first kept?
Did you also know that, if everyone consumed as much as Canadians do, that we and our 7.4 billion fellow humans would need four planet Earths to sustain us all?
The debt-to-income ratio of Canadians ballooned from 0.6 percent in 1960 to 166.1 percent in 2014! As of the third quarter of 2015, our debt ratio reached a whopping 171 percent, and is now the highest of all the G7 countries. This means that, for every $100 of disposable income, Canadian households owe an average of $171. For comparison, the United States came in fourth, at 113.4 percent, and in last place was Italy at 90.1 percent. (For details, see http://business.financialpost.com/investing/outlook-2016/canadians-household-debt-highest-in-g7-with-crunch-on-brink-of-historic-levels-pbo-warns.)
These statistics are worrisome. They mean that many families can barely make ends meet, with no reserves for unexpected crises, such as a health problem or an increase in interest rates. Also, this extreme debt could lead to a national crisis as people default on their mortgages and declare bankruptcy. Much of this debt is the result of unnecessary buying. Most disquieting is the fact that we, like the average U.S. citizen, are consuming the equivalent of four planet Earths with our current lifestyle (calculations are based on how much land, sea and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume) – assuming citizens of every other country followed our example.
So, are many of the purchases by Canadians really unnecessary? A closer look at what we, as a nation, spend on food, housing, and transportation will bear this out. Keep in mind that there are little glimmers of hope in the picture, but we Canadians still have a long way to go to control our spending by reducing consumption of unnecessary goods.
According to the Toronto Food Policy Council (http://tfpc.to/food-waste-landing/food-waste-theissue), $31 billion worth of edible food, the equivalent of 40 percent of Canada’s annual food production, is wasted in Canada each year (based on 2014 data). The cumulative cost of associated wastes (energy, water, land, labour, machinery, transport, etc.) equals an additional 2.5 times the “face value” of the wasted food. This does not include the pollution resulting from landfilling the waste. Approximately 47 percent of this food waste occurs in Canadian homes.
What about housing? There is both good news and bad news. The bad news: From 1947 to recent years, the size of Canadian houses ballooned from 1,000 ft2 (about 93 m2) to an average of 2,300 ft2 (about 214 m2) in 2002, when they beat Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand for the top spot. During that same time, average family size shrank from an average of 4 people per household in 1951 to 2.5 fifty years later. The good news: Since the early 2000s, house area has gradually decreased to the point where it was approximately 1,900 ft2 (about 177 m2) in 2012. At the same time, houses have become more energy efficient, and if this trend to reduced house size continues, it will not only lead considerably to reduced carbon emissions, but also help Canadians get a better handle on their debt repayments. (Much of this data is taken from The incredible shrinking home: Why Canada’s houses are getting smaller (Tristin Hopper, July 13, 2012). (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-incredible-shrinking-home-why-canadas-houses-are-getting-smaller)
Another major area of concern is transportation. Although carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have decreased for most developed countries, including Canada, our love affair with the combustion engine continues. For data on fossil fuel consumption for all countries, check this website: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.COMM.FO.ZS fossil fuel energy consumption.
In Canada, sales of motorized boats, including jetboats, have increased between 10 and 23 percent, depending on the type of boat. Prices vary from $5,000 to $85,000 depending on the size, make and model. According to a business report in The Toronto Star (https://www.thestar.com/business/2013/01/14/boat_sales_in_canada_up_13_per_cent.html):
In 2012, more than one in five Canadian households owned at least one recreational boat (this article refers mainly to motorized boats)….The survey found that the average boater in Canada is from 31 to 49 years of age, with a household income of $44,000 to $99,000 a year and children living at home….Ontario leads the way with 40 percent of residents who say they participate in boating, the survey found. (end of quote)
While there are valid reasons for having a motorized boat, careening all over our province’s lakes and rivers just for the fun of it is not one of them. Not only is it costly to buy, maintain, transport and store the boat, but it is also environmentally disruptive, with all the fumes, noise, and boat wakes affecting wildlife and other vacationers.And then of course, there are the land-based recreational vehicles: ATVs and snowmobiles. On the website www.orangeville.ca/get-file/1447, you can find a report titled: The Economic Impact of Snowmobiling in Ontario. An Assessment of the 2013-2014 Snowmobiling Season. Harry Cummings & Shannon McIntyre. May 2014. In the study, it was found that the 431people who participated in the survey owned an average of 1.8 snowmobiles per person. These respondents spent just over $2 million on snowmobiling, mainly on the purchase and upkeep of their machine, as well as on insurance, clothing and fuel. An average of $390 was spent on fuel for operating the snowmobile and towing it. The total annual cost of operating a snowmobile averaged about $4,600 per year per person. (By the way, did you know that the average snowmobile gets only 5 km per litre of gasoline, compared with 14 km per litre for a Ford Focus? And did you know that the average snowmobiler in North America rides his/her snowmobile 1,819 km per year?)
Although snowmobiling contributes a lot to the economy, it comes at a cost to the individual and the environment. Unlike house size, this is an area where sales are increasing. In 2015, there were 50,752 new snowmobiles sold in Canada, an increase of 16 percent from 2013. As for ATVs, the sale of new all-terrain vehicles in Ontario has been fairly steady during the last seven years (between 11,000 and 13,000 vehicles). A new snowmobile costs up to $10,000; a new Honda ATV costs between $5,000 and $10,000. ATVs have better fuel consumption than snowmobiles, averaging 9 km/L, but this is still considerably below that of the average sedan. Again, like snowmobiles, they emit a huge amount of noise and fumes, and pose a danger to pedestrians and cyclists on country roads.
What is the situation with cars? In this case, the choice to do without a car presents a serious restriction for rural residents. A report by Statistics Canada in 2006 sheds light on this topic. (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/16-002-x/2007001/article/10177-eng.htm)
In 1956, there were just under four persons per vehicle in Canada, but by 1976, that number declined to under two, and since then has remained between 1.5 and 2 persons per vehicle. In 2014 Canada was ranked 12th internationally, in terms of number of vehicles (662) per thousand people. Although, in Canada, advances in vehicle and fuel technology have resulted in a decrease in nitrogen oxides of 39 percent, and a decrease in volatile organic compounds (VOC) of 60 percent, greenhouse gas emissions from road transportation increased 33 percent. In other words, fewer vehicles don’t automatically equate to less pollution.
The good news is that the number of vehicles on the road has stabilized and that vehicles are becoming less polluting and more fuel-efficient. The bad news is that consumers are buying bigger vehicles (in 2015 sales of light trucks, which include SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, rose 8.8 percent over 2014, while sales of cars slipped 6.3 percent). People are also driving more. The average distance travelled by Ontarians in 2008 by light vehicles was 16,000 km; now it’s closer to 24,000.
The buyer of a new SUV, such as the 2017 GMC Terrain SLT AWD, has to fork out at least $37,000, and can expect to consume 18 miles per gallon (7 km per litre). Compare this with someone who has just bought a 2017 Chevrolet Cruze LS for about $22,000, and whose fuel consumption will be in the neighbourhood of 34 miles per gallon (12 km per litre). There are, in addition, ancillary costs such as insurance, financing expenses and depreciation, which are influenced by the original cost of the vehicle.
So how have we gotten ourselves into this financial and environmental mess? Not only are many of us hopelessly in debt; our rate of consumption is creating unsustainable levels of resource extraction and exploitation (mining, logging, fishing, and crop production), not to mention the resulting pollution that is degrading our quality of life and our ecosystems.
Many factors influence us, consciously and subconsciously, to create artificial demand. The all-pervasive media constantly reinforce our latent insecurities – implying that we aren’t attractive enough, loving enough, popular enough, or healthy enough. Or the opposite — these companies portray themselves as the only ones to recognize that we “deserve” the great products they’re offering – so we develop a sense of entitlement – of wanting more, instead of a feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the social and material benefits we already have. Advertising is targeted, more and more, to our specific interests and personality, and it’s everywhere. Especially with the Internet, it’s increasingly easy to gratify our wants immediately – with a simple keystroke! The result is that we often buy what we don’t need, and don’t take the time to consider the purchase beforehand. And of course, there’s planned obsolescence. Even if we carefully consider our purchase, its life is generally a lot shorter than, say, the equivalent purchase made 20 years ago. A case in point: what devious mind came up with producing smartphones with batteries that can’t be replaced?
By transferring our focus to material goods as a way of affirming our self-worth and getting pleasure, advertising is also having a negative effect on social cohesion. People are turning away from connecting with people and forming relationships; instead they are more influenced by the material aspect – the physical appearance of people, their social status (including their “net worth”), and their possessions (including their electronic gadgets). People are also viewing the individuals they meet as a means to get what they want, and not so much for that individual’s intrinsic qualities. By focusing on personal gratification, consumerism also negatively impacts our connection with nature, our ability to think about long-term goals, and our awareness of our role in society.
It’s important for us to think about what motivates us to buy, and to control our spending. For the sake of our financial health, and our planet’s health, let’s take a close look at the ways we’re spending our money, and do what we can to cut back. Part 2 of this topic on our financial and environmental debt will explore even more ways that we’re spending unnecessarily and address some strategies to overcome them.