Admit It—We're Overconsuming!
And life on Earth always pays the price.
It is simply not possible to carry on at the current level of economic activity without destroying the environment. There is no such thing as green growth. Growth is wiping the green from the Earth — George Monbiot, columnist for The Guardian, September 2021
IT IS EXTRAORDINARY to hear someone in mainstream media flat out call for cutting consumption and human activity to save wildlife and nature. Kudos to George Monbiot for his essay “Green Growth” doesn’t exist — less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe.
As are we, Monbiot is profoundly upset by the ongoing destruction of life on Earth. He sees it as a problem that demands basic changes to society.
The plight of the North Atlantic right whale, Monbiot explains, stems from a convergence of horrors: ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, commercial exploitation of whale food, noise disturbance, and oceanic pollution. Whether the victims be whales, insects, or coral reefs:
The various impacts have a common cause: the sheer volume of economic activity. We are doing too much of almost everything, and the world’s living systems cannot bear it. But our failure to see the whole ensures that we fail to address this crisis systemically and effectively.
We have no hope of emerging from this full-spectrum crisis unless we dramatically reduce economic activity. Wealth must be distributed – a constrained world cannot afford the rich – but it must also be reduced. Sustaining our life-support systems means doing less of almost everything. But this notion – that should be central to a new, environmental ethics – is secular blasphemy.
Yes indeed, cutting consumption is anathema to the powers that be. It’s unrealistic and unnecessary, so they say. Instead, let’s gamble the future of life on the theory of “decoupling” economic growth from environmental degradation. That can be done, they insist, through technology and efficiency.
Never mind that the dismantling of nature has never been decoupled from economic development. While environmental impacts from certain products or activities can sometimes be mitigated, our relentless assault on nature continues. Here are some thoughts as to why:
Technology doesn’t save nature. Back in the 1960s, I remember my forestry professor questioning the US Forest Service on the wisdom of broadcast spraying of the “amazing” insecticide DDT in order to protect forests. The idea was to improve lumber production by killing the naturally-occurring spruce budworm that periodically slowed growth of trees and reduced their value as timber. (Recall that DDT was also widely used to control insect-borne human diseases, protect crops and livestock, etc.). The result of DDT’s widespread use was steep declines in top-of-the-food-chain birds, such as Osprey, Brown Pelican, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. Once DDT was banned in the 1970s, reproductive failure in birds and other concerns subsided. However, DDT was replaced (but not everywhere) by a plethora of other pesticides that were environmentally harmful in other ways. As ecologist Barry Commoner noted in 1971: One of the most pervasive features of modern technology is the notion that it is intended to "improve on nature"- to provide food, clothing, shelter, and means of communication and expression which are superior to those available to man in nature. Stated baldly, the third law of ecology holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.
None of this is to say that technology is always harmful to the environment, or that there are no benefits to be gained from it. Rather, with unforeseen consequences and today’s vast scale of use, technology so often creates more environmental problems than it solves.
Efficiency doesn’t save nature. In 1987, the world banned ozone-depleting chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, used as refrigerants and for other purposes. The chemicals, in effect, increased the amount of ultraviolet radiation hitting the Earth’s surface, resulting in harm to people, wildlife, and plants. Their replacements, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), turned out to be extremely long-lived greenhouse gases. HFC emissions are still increasing despite greater energy efficiency of the refrigerators, air conditioners, insulating foams, and other products and equipment that use them. Maybe HFCs can be phased out of existence and replaced by something else. Maybe not. But be certain that production and use of products that use them (with their own set of issues) will vastly increase with growing global demand for refrigeration and air-conditioning. (For more on the limitations and consequences of technology and efficiency, check out the book Bright Green Lies.)
Green energy won’t save nature. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions in time to curtail dangerous global heating looks increasingly improbable for a variety of economic, technological, and political reasons. Replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and nuclear power will likely be too little, too late. Even if the worst of climate change were avoided, the vast scope of global energy production and consumption expected in coming decades will lay waste to wildlife and nature. The world economy is far outstripping human population growth, and, unless something catastrophic happens to it, will more than double in size by 2050.
Major changes to the Planet Earth over the last 10 years, 2012-2022. Humanity is not even close to sustainability.
Commercial exploitation of nature — plus 47% (as suggested by world GDP growth)
Human population size — plus 14% (from 7 billion to nearly 8 billion)
Species declared extinct — 467
Carbon dioxide emissions — plus 10%
Global average temperature increase — plus 25%
IS THERE ANY HOPE of putting the brakes on consumerism and economic growth before further environmental damage is done? How might a dramatic scale down come about?
Personal Lifestyle Changes. Many people around the world are reducing their ecological footprint through better choices in diet, home energy use, transportation, investment, and the like. Getting one’s family, buddies, neighbors and local community to do likewise multiples the effects. A “simplicity” meme that builds up steam could potentially have a spiraling effect that inspires many more people to cut back. Nevertheless, don’t be too confident that a minority of people can change society’s overgrowth trajectory, since alternative lifestyle movements don’t have an impressive track record in that regard. But as the world goes to hell in a hand basket, who knows, the motivation for a broad simplicity revolt might arise.
Suppose that people in all but the poorest countries of the world became inspired to reduce their consumption by better than a third, on average. That would essentially mean a 33% drop in world GDP (gross domestic product) — and, by proxy, global environmental impacts — since the poorest 100 countries account for only about 5% of world GDP. That may sound a bit optimistic given how difficult it can be for individuals to put aside convenience and creature comforts for what would hopefully become a significant greater good. But it’s not impossible. In another recent column, our friend George Monbiot noted that it might take mobilizing only 25% of people to flip social attitudes to avoid environmental collapse.
Big Media Buy-In. Today’s mainstream media and advertising have a tremendous and, I suspect, determining effect on our culture. George Monbiot may be part of a tiny minority of scale down commentators today, but that could quickly change. I bet that if big media were to report, talk story, and comment daily on the matter of overconsumption and the benefits of ending it (as it does on topics of far less consequence for the planet), a major movement to reduce consumption and stabilize the world economy would be born.
Political Decisions. Kirk Hall, a Scale Down member on Facebook, lays out an intriguing scenario whereby a degrowth economy appears almost over overnight! A brave government makes the wisest of world decisions to avert catastrophic planetary collapse. After careful planning and collaboration with the media, it declares a state of emergency, shutters the normal economic system, and installs a truly green economy. As the benefits of such a bold move become clear to society, the government wins re-election and gains in popularity. Other countries awaken to the need and follow suit. A fantasy?
Well, I suspect that any radical economic change that smacks of authoritarian rule would face defeat. Nonetheless, degrowth and steady-state economics could garner great appeal as environmental conditions deteriorate and as neoliberal economies begin to fail. With a cultural move away from consumerism and toward healthier and simpler lives, degrowth policies could take hold, locally at first, then at state, provincial, and national levels. Bottom up, not top down.
So what to do? Given what’s at stake we should all feel motived to act: to push the scale down narrative by sharing thoughts with others, messaging society through calls, letters and articles, and letting political people know where we stand. And, of course, by setting an example for society through our own lifestyle choices.
Let’s use social and conventional media, and call upon head honchos of the media to address overconsumption and the need for society to scale down. Heed Marshall McLuhan’s dictum—the medium is the message.
Don’t let a day go by without scoring points for nature.