It's Time for Millennium Consumption Goals

by Erik Assadourian   |   April 22, 2011

Un Endofarms Lukeredmond1

I read yesterday that a Sri Lankan scientist is calling for the drafting of “Millennium Consumption Goals” to help rich countries curb their climate-damaging consumption habits, in the same way the poor have Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to get them out of poverty. It's a fantastic idea—but what would these MCGs include?

For those unfamiliar with the Millennium Development Goals, these are a set of eight goals for “underdeveloped” societies to halve poverty, lack of access to clean water, illiteracy, and other key indicators of underdevelopment by 2015.

So, naturally, we should have a set of parallel goals in overdeveloped countries. As the scientist, Mohan Munasinghe, noted, consumption is at the heart of overdeveloped countries' environmental burden, so tackling this issue head-on is key. And I’d argue not just for Earth but for citizens of overdeveloped countries as well.

But what targets should these MCGs set forth? Unfortunately, the article doesn’t mention anything more, but I’m going to start the list and encourage you all to add additional ideas:

  1. Halve obesity and overweight rates by 2020 (we’ve pushed the date back since we're starting the MCGs later than the MDGs). This will reduce mortality, morbidity, and economic costs, as well as reduce ecological pressures driven by overconsumption of food.
  2. Halve the work week from the current 40+ hours per week to 20 hours per week. This will better distribute jobs and wealth, promote healthier living, and reduce economic activity, which is essential in our ecologically taxed world. For a good paper on this topic, read New Economic Foundation’s excellent report 21 Hours.
  3. Better distribute wealth by raising taxes on the wealthiest members of society. That one will get me in trouble with the Tea Party, but let’s dust off the idea of Noblesse Oblige: to those given much, much is expected in return. The days of extreme wealth spent on luxurious living must draw to a close. The Earth can’t handle it any longer.
  4. Double the rate of use of non-motorized transport (bikes, walking, etc.). Increasing these forms of transport will improve health, reduce fossil fuel and materials use, and make for safer cities.
  5. Guarantee access to healthcare for all. Yes, this is another minefield in the U.S., but it's standard procedure in most industrial countries so it should be an easy goal for most countries to achieve.

Ok, I’ll stop there. Please help me add three more to the list to get it to eight, and then we can see about getting this submitted to the United Nations. After all, if people in overdeveloped countries can set goals for those living poorly in developing countries, the UN should show the same concern to people "living poorly" in industrial countries.


One additional MCG to consider: Reducing military expenditures by 75% by 2025.

Many of you may recall the essay I wrote a few months back describing Professor Mohan Munasinghe’s idea of establishing a set of Millennium Consumption Goals to help global consumers to reduce their total consumption.

I immediately connected with the idea and even proposed some goals. I wanted to update you all on how that effort has evolved and share a newly revised list, thanks to all the great comments and ideas that you all posted in comments or additional reflections on this initiative.

First, the update: Dr. Munasinghe has moved forward amazingly quickly with this idea since the news article came out in late January describing his idea.Take a look at the Millennium Consumption Goals website, which he put together. And this article goes into more details as well. More so, Munasinghe is helping to bring together a small international coalition that is interested in putting the MCGs on the United Nation’s agenda, including the Center for a New American Dream.

In fact, on May , I will be joining Dr. Munasinghe, Uchita de Zoysa of the Centre for Environment and Development, and several others at the UN to discuss the MCGs at an event there, as part of the Commission on Sustainable Development 2011 meetings. Discussing this idea at the UN is of course very exciting as it’ll draw more attention to the root cause of most of our environmental woes—consumerism—so I’m very glad to participate.

While the goals aren’t set, and Munasinghe is being very strategic in keeping this as an open frame, I can’t help but think through these goals (it’s fun!) especially after receiving such great suggestions from readers. 

So, with your comments as a guide, I fleshed out my own take on the MCGs, and added a few targets that add nuance to the broader goals (following the style of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I’m sure there will be much evolution in the final product, and as with the MDGs, many more targets to support the broader goals, but for now, take a look and see what you think—the three new ones are first and then I add a bit more to the original five. And of course, further suggestions are welcome!

1. Halve total energy used by 2025.

a. Halve the fossil fuels used by 2020

b. Halve household energy used by 2020

Energy is an essential realm of consumption to tackle. And this goal is especially ripe for sub-targets. With humanity already using 1.5 planets worth of ecological capacity and 2 billion more people on the way, we have to reduce total energy used—at least if we expect to provide a basic amount of energy necessary for a decent life to everyone. But most urgently, we have to curb fossil fuel use—hence the first target of halving fossil fuel use by 2020. The best way to reach that target is probably through a straightforward carbon tax, which will help get the prices right, but of course politicians (most of whom are heavily influenced by fossil fuel companies) don’t think that’s a very straightforward idea at all.

Another good target would be halving household energy use by half by 2020. This is a low-hanging fruit and could help us shut down some of the most polluting power plants earlier, which would buy us a bit more time for the harder energy reductions. (Thanks to Matthew McDermott, Jack Davis, Christos, and Jon Miller for your comments on this topic!)

2. Cut military spending by 75 percent by 2025.

For this goal, I moved away from the “halving” style of the MDGs, as military expenditures are a major impediment to sustainability—a significant waste of materials that could be used to build wind turbines, research dollars that could be used to design advanced solar and transportation technologies, and nuclear fuel that could be diverted from weapons to continue to power working nuclear reactors as we shift to safer forms of energy. Imagine if 75 percent of the annual $1.5 trillion spent on the world’s militaries was repurposed to help achieve true global security (including resilience to a changing climate and growing population). Thanks to Kim Gyr and John D for their suggestions.

3. Replace GDP with a genuine progress indicator or well-being index by 2015.

This is a no-brainer and could be implemented quickly. We have to move away from the myth of perpetual growth, and a new indicator will be necessary for measuring progress. An indicator that confuses growth with progress is a major impediment to sustainability. And as there has already been decades of development of alternative indicators, I suggest this goal should be implemented by 2015—not much time but definitely do-able. Thanks to Mary Greene and eccemarco for their comments.

4. Halve obesity and overweight rates by 2020.

I’ve updated this one to include the many farming reforms that readers suggested. As farming and food go hand and hand (or would it be hand and mouth?) I incorporate them into this goal.

a. Produce half of food organically by 2020.

b. Reduce consumption of animal products by 50 percent by 2020.

c. Increase local resilience of food supply, producing more crops locally when appropriate.

I don’t include a numeric goal for this last one as local is not always the best choice, depending on geography. But when appropriate, local food production—for local consumption—should be encouraged. And one specific sub-target of this would be converting the useless crop of lawns to food and native (edible) plants. Converting America’s lawns, for example, would produce a cornucopia of new food supplies. (Thanks to Anders Strandberg, CH, Jenefer, Giorgio, Cingolani, Matthew McDermott, Lindy McGuinness, konne, Jolyn, and Anna Barker.)

Below, for context are the earlier four, rounding out the total at 8 MCGs.

5. Halve the work week from the current 40+ hour per week to 20 hours per week.

6. Better distribute wealth by raising taxes on the wealthiest members of society.

7. Double the rate of use of non-motorized transport (bikes, walking, etc.).

a. Increase density of suburban housing by 50 percent by 2020.

That target was inspired by Ashwani Vasishth (Though I made it a bit stricter). This increase in density would be easy to do, by shifting laws to make it legal to rent out extra rooms or split large single-family homes into multiple units, convert garages into in-law apartments or an additional home, and so on. That would make suburbs significantly denser.

8. Guarantee access to health care for all.

Thanks for all your comments, and additional comments are of course welcome, both here and at