Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Jaws of the Beast

When we aren't travelling, both Lara and I both drive cars that are over 12 years old. Our washing machine and clothes drier are reconditioned. Many of our dishes date back to my college days when I got them from friends. Our TV is a big box instead of an expensive flat screen. We still have luxirious lifestyles by world standards, but compared to many other Canadians we live very modestly. If the world is to survive environmentally there will have to be more people like us. The planet can't afford for all of us to buy new appliances every four years.

Yet it has become increasingly obvious in the last few months that the economy of the planet is based on the opposite assumption. Our whole economic system was built around the assumption that people will relentlessly consume, buying new goods whether they need them or not. And when that consumption stops, the whole world teeters on the edge of a spiral of economic ruin. If we don't buy a new car every two years people who make cars lose their jobs. Then they can't afford new TVs, which puts TV makers out of work so they can't buy washing machines.

Governments around the world are now trying to get consumers to spend again. In many countries you can get money from the government if you throw away perfectly good products like cars and appliances and buy brand new ones. It's ridiculous, but our very livelyhoods depend on this cycle continuing.

The conclusion is inescapable. The environmental movement is doomed because a culture of recycling and reusing and making do with less is only sustainable against the backdrop of a larger culture of mass consumerism. If you are recycling paper or bottles or cans you are now the enemy; you are depriving people in the forestry and mining industry of their jobs. How can we both cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase car sales? How can we cut the destruction of forests while increasing the consumption of timber? How can we cut the mining of metals while increasing the sales of appliances?

I wish I could see a way forward from here. But it is hard. Perhaps we will still invent technologies that allow us to consume at ever increasing rates while lowering our impact on the Earth. But right now things look grim. We've built a world economy around the idea that our lifestyle will continue and the rest of the world will join us in our wealth. Yet we face an environmental crisis that requires huge drops in consumption of natural resources.

The sad thing is that eventually we will face this crisis anyway. Each time we turn the crank and feed another ecosystem into the maws of the ravening consumers we get closer to the point where we will run out. Eventually there will be nothing left to feed the beast, and then we will have to make do with less. Maybe we will reinvent our economies. Most likely it will happen in stages, with huge dieoffs from famine and environmental disasters in poorer areas, while those of us fortunate enough to live in places like Canada continue to struggle along with what is left.

Grim thoughts on a beautiful Cape Town day.

No comments: