Sustainable Numbersdocument.location.href=""

April 18, 2010 | 23:24
Sometimes I think about what sustainability means to me. Lately, the term has become so overused, that I have been second-guessing what sustainable living really is. In our society, it seems we do not know what to do with the over-abundance of just about everything that is available to us.

This has led me to think a bit more about my own consumption. Is there any need for me to be worried about excessive habits? Should I stop taking endless showers and start worrying

more about turning off my computer when I am not using it? The only way to know for sure, is to look at the numbers!

Let's take a deeper look into our water consumption. On average, a Dutch person uses about thirty-three cubic meters of water a year, which does not sound like much at all. Maybe it should be expressed differently: The domestic water usage of one person could be compared to consuming about seventy thousand Spa bottles each year! Having established an understandable unit to measure water in, it sounds like an impressive amount. But any excessive, ungrateful and wasteful behavior can always be compared to that of starving African children. So to prove my point, I am going to check if that “impressive” number holds up by comparing it to the average fresh water consumption of a random African country, let's say Somalia. As it turns out, the average Somalian has a yearly domestic water usage comparable to four thousand bottles of bottled water. Unsurprisingly this is just a fraction of the Dutch consumption.

Now let's have a look at our electrical usage. Each year, a Dutch person uses an average of seven megawatt-hour, while in Somalia it is less than half a megawatt-hour per person. In other words, it would take two and a half years of solely watching television to equal the yearly consumption of one Dutch person. To put this in perspective, it would take only four days of watching television to exceed the average yearly consumption of one Somalian.

Meaningless numbers go hand in hand with our wasteful behavior, and it is only after placing these numbers into a familiar context that we begin to understand their true meaning. Converting values into numbers we relate to is a powerful way of changing our perspectives. As superficial as it may seems, converting cubic meters to bottled water, and megawatts to television time is effective and immediately gives us a better understanding of the dimensions of these numbers.

During my next shower it will be hard not to think of how many liters I am wasting, or how many bottles of Spa are going down the drain. But admittedly, mornings do start much better while waking up underneath a warm shower, just that one minute longer.
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