THE ENVIRONMENT PROBLEM

11.7.2010

Almost everyone assumes that the environmental problem can be solved in and  by consumer-capitalist society.  They think that if we do things like recycle our garbage, buy green label products, and put in rainwater tanks, and if governments adopt more efficient technologies, such as electric cars,  then we can cut the environmental impact sufficiently, while we all go on enjoying affluent lifestyles and economic growth.

This view is catastrophically wrong --- but governments, media general publics and especially Green agencies and parties all refuse to attend to the case against it.  This is despite the fact that most people are familiar with the basic figures below which contradict their delusion.

The destruction of the environment is being caused by the fact that the volumes of producing and consuming are far beyond sustainable levels.  We are taking natural resources from the planet’s ecosystems, and dumping wastes back in, at rates that would take 1.4 planet earths to provide sustainably.  And if all 9 billion people expected were to live as we in Australia do now resource consumption xwould be 6 – 10 times as great as it is now.

Most of these resource flows are going only to the few who live in rich countries.  Australia’s per capita use of productive land is 10 times as great as will be possible for all people in 2050.  There is no possibility that all the world’s people could ever rise to the living standards and resource consumption rates we have in rich countries.

All green people are familiar with facts and figures like this but fail/refuse to recognize what they mean.  We in rich countries must move to a small fraction of our present volumes of resource consumption or the big global problems can’t be solved. 

But the biggest problems is not the present grossly unsustainable levels of production and consumption.  The main problem is that this society is manically obsessed with economic growth, with increasing rates of production and consumption, all the time and without limit.  If Australia has 3% growth to 2050 and all the world’s people come up to the “living standards” we would have then, the total amount of producing and consumming going on in the world would be 30 times as great as it is today.  This is absurdly impossible and to go on in that direction is plainly suicidal – but governments and indeed the main environmental agencies and Green parties flatly refuse to even think about this.

An ecologically sustainable society must have a zero- growth economy, with far less production, consumption and GDP than our present economies. There is no such thing as “sustainable growth”. 

Consider some of the problem areas.

Species Extinction.

We are entering a period of rapid and massive loss of species.  Why?  Primarily because one species, out of the possibly 30 million on earth, insists on taking so much of the planet’s area and biological production.  The mass of big animals in the sea is down to 10% of its original value.  Most fisheries are being harvested beyond sustainable limits.  Many rivers such as the Colorado and the Murray are dying because humans are taking far more water than these ecosystems can tolerate.  Water tables are falling. Forests are reducing by perhaps 20 million ha p.a.  Melbourne’s growth plan includes destruction of a large area of scarce remaining native grassland.  Soils are being eroded or otherwise lost.  Above all, humans are taking about 40% of the net primary productivity, the biological product of all the land on the planet. 

Obviously, the main reason why species are being lost is because humans are taking them and their habitats.

…and only a fifth of the world’s people live affluently and all 9 billion are supposed to do so by 2050…and we in the richest countries insist on getting richer and consuming more, with no limit in  mind!

A glance at the resource and environmental situation shows that we are already far beyond sustainable rates of production and consumption.  Even though only one-fifth of the world’s people live affluently humans are using the output of 1.4 planet earths.  It is obvious that there is not the slightest possibility of reducing the ecological stress to tolerable levels unless we cut present levels of production and consumption to a very small fraction of the per capita rates typical of rich countries…and that is not possible in a consumer-capitalist society.

            The Greenhouse Problem.

It is very likely that in the near future it will be generally agreed that carbon emissions to the atmosphere must be completely eliminated. (See the paper in Nature by Meinschausen, et al., 2009.)  The common, unexamined assumption is that if we switch to renewable and nuclear energy sources and use coal with geo-sequestration we can meet our energy demand with no need to think about abandoning consumer society or affluence.  There is a very strong case that this faith is totally mistaken.  (See Trainer, 2008, 2010a, 2010b.)  We can only solve the greenhouse problem, and the general energy supply problem, by moving to ways of life that allow us to live well on a small fraction of present energy demand, in economies which have far lower levels of production and consumption than at present, and no growth at all.

            But better technology will solve the problems.”

The dominant view of course is that better technology plus lifestyle adjustments will reduce the impacts sufficiently and avoid any need for thinking about abandoning affluence and growth.  This faith is easily refuted.

            The solution?

There is an overwhelmingly strong case that there can be no solution to the environmental problem in consumer-capitalist society, yet hardly anyone will think about this.  There is no possibility of getting the environmental impacts down to sustainable levels in a society that a) is already far beyond such levels, b) will see the levels multiply if affluent living standard” are extended to all people, c) insists on limitless increase in affluence, production, consumption and GDP.  Consumer-capitalist society cannot possibly fix the environmental problem.

            Why don’t environmental agencies say these things?

We are dealing with a society in which the supreme values are to do with wealth, possessions, consuming, getting richer all the time, and which has an economy that must have constant increases in GDP.  No one wants to even think a bout the possibility that these fundamental assumptions, values and systems are catastrophically mistaken and that our  ig global problems cannot possibly be solved unless we face up to getting off this path.

It is therefore not surprising that all the environmental agencies, whether governmental departments or NGOs, and all the Green political parties, flatly refuse to deal with the perspective explained here.  They know that if they did  start telling people they must abandon the quest for affluence and growth people would ignore them, agencies would lose their subscribers, and  business world would attack them for being economic vandals.  These agencies do valuable things, such as saving whales and forests, but these campaigns make no contribution to saving the planet because that can only be done if we replace the systems and values causing the problems.

The way out?

Ecological impacts can only be cut dramatically in a society based on the very different principles of The Simpler Way, especially living frugally and simply, mostly in small, highly self-sufficient local economies, run on basically cooperative principles, in an economy driven by need and not profit and without any growth.  (See the website, Trainer 2006.)

Meinshausen, M, N. Meinschausen, W. Hare, S. C. B. Raper, K. Frieler, R. Knuitti, D. J. Frame, and M. R. Allen, (2009), “Greenhouse gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C”, Nature, 458, 30th April, 1158 -1162.

Trainer, T., (2006) The Simpler Way website, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/

Trainer, T., (2010a), “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case”, Energy Policy, 38, 8, August, 4107 - 4114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.037

Trainer, T., (2010b), “Renewable energy – cannot sustain an energy-intensive society”, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html