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What Shopping Says About the Pleistocene Overkill

Different instances of human excess follow a pattern.

When people colonized a new landmass, most of their large game animals disappeared virtually overnight. This first case of excessive consumption by our species has some surprising similarities to the modern shopping craze that threatens our planet.

To begin with, both events were facilitated by technological innovation.

Killing from a Distance

The Pleistocene Overkill began at least fifty thousand years ago. This timing is correlated with the emergence of spear throwers and bows and arrows.

The arrow is a light projectile that can be propelled with great speed and high accuracy. This means that a group of hunters could bring down a large prey animal from a safe distance.

With many archers working together, it would not take long for one of them to strike a vital artery, or cut a ligament that brought the prey animal down before it got close enough to injure one of the hunters.

Similarly, spear throwers increase the size of the arc through which the spear is slung, increasing its acceleration and range. In effect, it increased the length of a person's throwing arm.

Even large and dangerous animals like the woolly mammoth did not stand a chance against this technology for killing from a distance. Hence the speed with which human colonists in new territory wiped out all of their large prey animals.

Causes of Excessive Consumption

We do not know why our remote ancestors were so reckless in their treatment of prey populations. One possibility is that their success in taking down large prey fueled a human population increase that increased the demand for food and crashed the prey populations.

Although superficially plausible, this explanation is weak because the human population remained tiny by modern standards, at fewer than 10 million individuals. It seems unlikely that a population this small could have eaten its way through almost all the large-animal populations on the planet.

When resources are plentiful, hunter-gatherers may use them in a wasteful manner. For example, when Maori hunters migrated to New Zealand, in the twelfth century, they exterminated the giant moa, a species of flightless birds. Hunters killed far more of the eight-foot-tall birds than they needed. Favorite parts were removed and the rest of the carcass was abandoned.

Indigenous hunters of North America killed bison by driving them over cliffs to their death. They made sure that all members of a group of buffalo they had separated from the herd were killed to ensure that the buffalo did not learn to avoid these places in the future.

This meant that more animals were killed than were needed. While some of the surpluses were dried for consumption during winter, some of the animals were not needed and spoiled before they could be butchered. Despite the waste, the bison were not wiped out by indigenous hunters. This could be because complex buffalo hunts were recent and relied on horses. It might also have been explainable in terms of the buffalos' migratory habits that moved them away from the hunters.

Excessive consumption can degrade natural resources. For modern economies, the principal harm is carbon pollution that warms the planet and degrades delicate ecosystems. Economic activity is strongly correlated with carbon pollution because renewable energy remains a small component of global energy used to produce and transport goods and provide services.

Shopping from a Distance

If the Industrial Revolution brought integration among the economies of the world by extending supply chains and the marketing area for finished products, the Digital Revolution put the consumer in the driving seat of the global economy.

The click of a mouse brings products from all over the globe to the shopper's doorstep. This process is enormously stimulative to the global economy, which means that it bears a significant carbon cost.

Much of this consumption is excessive by two yardsticks. First, it is done using credit so that consumers buy more than they can strictly afford based on their earnings. Second, it is discretionary, meaning that the purchases are not necessary for survival, such as food, shelter, or medicine. Instead, they fulfill social needs such as wearing fashion brands to appear hip and successful.

Like the Pleistocene hunters, who killed more than they could eat, we are buying more than we need. In each case, there was a price to pay. They lost their prized megafauna prey. We are destroying the delicate ecosystems on which our existence depends. Both instances of over-consumption were enabled by technology and motivated more by social needs than by survival needs.