Keystone Consumers

When it comes to common resources, a failure to cooperate is a failure to control consumption. In Garrett Hardin’s classic tragedy, everyone overconsumes and equally contributes to the detriment of the commons. But a relative few can also ruin a resource for the rest of us.

While a keystone species refers to a specific species that structures an ecosystem, I consider keystone consumers to be a specific group of humans that structures a market for a particular resource. Intense demand by a few individuals can bring flora and fauna to a brink.

There are keystone consumers in the markets for caviar, slipper orchids, tiger penises, plutonium, pet primates, diamonds, antibiotics, Hummers, and sea horses. Niche markets for frog legs in pockets of the United States, Europe, and Asia are depleting frog populations in Indonesia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Seafood lovers in high-end restaurants are causing stocks of long-lived fish species like orange roughy or toothfish in Anarctica to crash. The desire of wealthy Chinese consumers for shark-fin soup has led to the collapse of several shark species. It is possible for a small minority of humans to precipitate the disappearance of an entire species.

The consumption of nonliving resources is also imbalanced. The 15 per cent of the world’s population that lives in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia consumes thirty-two times more resources, like fossil fuels and metals, and produces thirty-two times more pollution than the developing world where the remaining 85 percent of humans live. City dwellers consume more than people living in the countryside. A recent study determined that the ecological footprint for an average resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, was thirteen times higher than that of his suburban/rural counterpart.

Developed nations, urbanites, ivory collectors: The keystone consumer depends on the resource in question. In the case of water, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of use in the United States; large-scale farms are the keystone consumers. So why do many conservation efforts focus on households rather than on water efficiency on farms? The keystone consumer concept helps focus conservation efforts where returns on investments are highest.

Like keystone species, keystone consumers also have a disproportionate impact relative to their abundance. Biologists identify keystone species as conservation priorities because their disappearance could cause the loss of many other species. In the marketplace, keystone consumers should be priorities because their disappearance could lead to the recovery of the resource. Human should protect keystone species and curb keystone consumption. The lives of others depend on it.

Jennifer Jacquet
Researcher in environmental economics, University of British Columbia
from This will make you smarter: New scientific concepts to improve your thinking
Edited by John Brockman

Keystone interests

Focusing our creative attention, our creative energy, and our creative enterprise on our keystone resources and our keystone interests and on ideas and opportunities for creative community enterprise that contribute to our keystone interests is how we increase our contribution to  creating possibilities for our future and the future of our world.
Roger Chilton
from My Point of View

What are our keystone interests?

Creative connections

Restoring Our Atmosphere
Restoring Our Oceans
Restoring Our Environment
Creating Our Recovery Systems
Creating Our Community
Creative Community Enterprise
Creating Our Systems
Creating Connections with Ideas
Creating Connections with Opportunities
Quantum Ideas