The Shadows of Consumption by Peter Dauvergne

The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment is the latest offering from Canadian academic and former chess champion, Peter Dauvergne.

It’s perhaps a book which wouldn’t in the past have had a wide appeal. But today with titles such as 365 Ways to Save the World being touted by high street bookshops as potential Christmas gifts, it’s a justifiable festive read.

The book focuses almost exclusively on the effects of American industry and uses case studies (including somewhat unfortunately the growth of General Motors) to get across ideas such as planned obsolescence - products built to quickly become obsolete, forcing consumers to buy again. Acts of consumption are described by Dauvergne as ‘raindrops in a typhoon’, a neat metaphor which conveys his evident belief in the necessity of taking individual responsibility for global trends.

The book’s central question, ‘What are the environmental consequences of consumption?’ is answered by looking at five specific industries; automobiles, leaded gasoline, refrigerators, beef and the harp seal hunt. This limited scope is understandable, as the author himself points out it would take several lifetimes to research the environmental effects of every ‘shadow of consumption’. And whilst the harp seal industry will be of little general interest to most of us who read it, Dauvergne’s point that even niche pockets of industry affect us all in the end is a valid and thought-provoking one.

Although he might well have been excused for maintaining a downbeat view throughout this entire book, Dauvergne makes a cheery effort to point out the positive changes that are being made to combat the effects of the industries he discusses. This is so (he claims) readers can trust that what they are getting here is an objective - as far as this is possible - view of affairs. However, he does later criticise the success of efforts so far undertaken to reduce environmental damage as too local, and points out that they do little to protect the most vulnerable people and ecosystems.

Dauvergne’s overriding message here is that, yes, steps have already been taken to understand and offset the effects of our global desire for exponential production but without further explanation and efforts our over-consumption will be to the environment what ballast would be to a sinking ship.

This book is an insightful read for anyone concerned with how today’s habit of over-consumption has a wider effect on the lives of those outside the industrialised West.

The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment by Peter Dauvergne (MIT Press, £16.95)