It's going to be a hard thing for us to concede that our western way of
life is not exemplary. But exemplary is not. If it were exemplary, everybody
on the planet could live this way. But, this really is a dream.
Because, for everyone to live this way, we are presently 4 earth's short
of the natural resources required.
Graph: The New Scientist estimates that, for everyone to live like Brits,
3 planets are required, or to live like North Americans, 5 planets.
So, for all our clever green washing chatter about corporate responsibility
and stewardship of the planet, it is obvious that we are the least qualified
to lead on sustainability. We are the ones who are out of touch, not the
illiterate farmers and fishermen we routinely bulldoze out of the way.
Our response is to turn on the TV and cross our fingers that our pensions
will look after us in our old age. Meanwhile our sons ride the tentacles
of the oil junky as it strikes out with every greater urgency to wherever
in the world cheap energy can be cornered.
Some of us sigh, because we have observed the never ending cycle of violence
required to 'open up markets'.
Millions protested the violence. I marched peacefully with Muslims in
Marrakesh, and in the UK, where London's loudest
ever public demonstration fell on deaf ears. Western 'democracy',
I then understood, is as inflexible as prison visiting times.
'The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden
fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas... ' writes
economist Thomas Friedman*1
Financiers demand. Economists prescribe. Politicians promise. The military
The logic is inescapable.
At any given moment, the earth's wealth is finite. When ownership of that
wealth gets concentrated into fewer hands (especially at the barrel of
a gun), it is correspondingly denied to others.
When, by wealth, we mean essentials like fresh water, fertile land and
a home, it turns people hitherto living sustainably into slum dwelling
Meanwhile, closer to home, the same private profit-seeking erodes free
healthcare, education, the work/play life balance and support for
those who can't care for themselves.
So, when is 'progress' NOT about sending someone backwards or holding
them in check?
If we, as adults, could stick to the advice we give our kids, perhaps
we can get back on the right track.
Sharing could be the answer.
Once upon a time, we shared.
After WWII, it was actually quite difficult to get people out of the habit
of sharing and saving and reusing things like jars and aluminium foil.
People had to be reminded repeatedly that they needed new things. In
fact, it has taken 50 years of TV advertising for the message to well
and truly sink in.
Modern life is, indeed, rubbish.
Dumping the used and pumping the new proved more profitable. Waste and
inefficiency have been quite deliberately promoted to build repeat sales.
Disposable razor anyone?
Products, it turned out, are cheaper to produce when virgin resources
are used, but there's more profit in the maxed out Hummer than a light
weight saloon. So, to the Director who sits on the board of both
the car and the oil company, the Hummer is the ultimate win win.
But how many people are now overspent on all this stuff?
Could sharing start to appeal as we find credit harder to come by?
Think about it. How many cars are sitting idle outside at this very moment?
How many 'home cinemas' are without an audience? How many power tools,
lawn mowers, barbeques and washing machines are static. How many instruments,
computers, toys, books and kitchen appliances long for interaction, how
many tents, bicycles and fitness machines are gathering dust.
This is spectacularly inefficient. If we shared we might find ways to
get along better consuming less.
What could a Western community of 150 households achieve today if it shared?
Could it not equip a library, a gym, a luxury cinema, a vehicle pool,
a workshop, a shed full of tools, a dozen guest rooms, a creche for tiny
Sharing would be a start... it might, in fact, feel like progress.
'According to Advertising Age, about 75% of commercial network
television time is paid for by the 100 largest corporations... The average
American who watches five hours of television per day sees approximately
21,000 commercials per year. That's 21,000 repetitions of essentially
identical messages about life... all saying, Buy something - do it
the Absence of The Sacred by Jerry Mander, p78-9
US Marketing Consultant, Victor Lebow Journal of Retailing 1955:
'These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a
special urgency. We require not only "forced draft" consumption,
but "expensive" consumption as well. We need things consumed,
burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace.
We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live with ever more complicated
and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power
tools and the whole "do-it-yourself" movement are excellent
examples of "expensive" consumption.'
Darwin's nightmare - The introduction of predatory
Perch to Lake Victoria in Tanzania in the 60s has decimated the native
fish species. As huge white fillets land on Western dinner tables and
EU commissioners applaud, African conflict is fed by weapons traded in
exchange for the fish and hunger remains a problem.
Graph: Monsanto sold $4.45bn worth of GM seeds in 2013. They aren't selling
them cheap! At the same time farm subsidies in the US/EU make it impossible
for foreign farmers to compete with our exports. Local production and
self-sufficiency fades and the poor become dependent on the US for staple
foods... which gives the US even greater power over their political and
Graph above: What's population got to do with it?
Small changes in family size in high income nations impact emissions.
Big changes in family size in Sub-Saharan Africa don't. Emissions are
growing fastest in China where a one
child per family policy has been in place since 1979. The wholesale
shift of global manufacture to China heralded this. The UK industrial
revolution, with its harnessing of fossil fuel energy, provides the model.
In this model, energy surplus (coal, oil & thus CO2) twinned with
technological advances (steam, electricity) facilitate greater productivity,
improved living conditions, increasing consumption, longer living and
thus the possibility of sustained population growth. The UK model was
rapidly adopted elsewhere...