Environment by numbers

January sales, and the marketing campaigns that urge us to shop until we drop, fuel consumerism. And consumerism fuels climate change, writes Nick Reeves, executive director of Ciwem

Whatever we spend our money on – food, clothes, holidays, transportation or technology – is dependent on the use of fossil fuels.

Higher living standards, more economic growth and more consumption are the unchallenged aspiration of all nations, all governments and all industrial societies. No wonder we have a climate crisis. A crisis which is actually a crisis of consumerism.

Whether we need more clothes, more cars or more computers is now an irrelevant question. We have come to believe that we must have them. We have to consume in order to keep the wheels on the economic wagon turning. We have to keep buying to keep people in jobs, no matter what the consequences.

More than 75% of the world’s forests have already been cleared to feed our buying habit, and still there is no halt. Every year, an area the size of Austria is cleared of virgin forest from the Amazon to Indonesia so that we can keep consuming. We even go to war to ensure that we have enough oil and other natural resources, so that we can buy, buy, buy. And now we merely wish to find some alternative miracle technology to avoid the consequences of our consumerism – even though we must surely know that there is no such thing as consequence-free consumerism.

We have to do more than that simply weaning ourselves off fossil fuels to bio-fuels and other forms of sustainable energy. We have to change our habits and replace qualitative consumerism with a qualitative lifestyle. We need to think local and be less global, and move away from clutter to the enjoyment of the really good things in life such as art, music, friendship and free time. We need to move away from waste to conservation, from consuming to making, from illusion to imagination and creativity, from desire to delight and from consumption of natural things to appreciation of nature.

All sounds a bit fluffy? The truth is that greener lifestyles can make a big difference but that zero-impact living, for the forseeable future, is a chimera and that human numbers do matter – greatly. Footprinting studies show that 6 billion people living a modest western lifestyle based entirely on renewable energy would still need two planets to support them.

The UK, with a projected population of 100 million souls by 2050, is in the front line. Will it be a small, urbanised country, its quality of life plumetting, no longer capable of surviving on its own resources? Like Dr Johnson, I have many passions but few illusions. Until there’s a grown-up debate about population growth, and unless there’s a re-think about the way we live, it’s hard to see any other outcome. And this will be our gift to future generations. Pity them, shame on us. It’s a no-brainer that governments should work together to co-ordinate action on the environment. It should be at the heart of foreign and economic policy.

For the first time in history, we now have more obese people than malnourished. And there are also more people on the planet than ever before – fat and thin alike.

In October 2006 it was officially announced that the UK now has a population of more than 60 million, and that the USA had hit 300 million. These were landmarks which barely raised an eyebrow, and yet should cause us all to worry. Why? Well, they are indicators of a process which sees more than 70 million people being added to the global population each year, with growth forecast at around 40% by 2050, taking us from 6.5 billion to just over 9 billion. But, will the majority be obese people? Or will most be malnourished, with one part of our world growing fat on the food shortages of the other? And, does it really matter? I believe it does.

But try to discuss population growth these days and you are in danger of being branded a dangerous racist or, at best, of being one of those eccentric types who write angry letters to the press in purple ink. The politicos will accuse you of being authoritarian or a neo-Malthusian. And, recent movements in population and immigration have added to the difficulty.

Meantime, certain environmentalists, to their discredit, have abandoned the field for fear of tarnishing their liberal credentials. This is odd because there is strong anecdotal evidence to show that population is the subject which attracts most interest and questions at meetings around the UK. In fact population growth demonstrates the huge gap between what ordinary people think and what civil society leaders deem it politic to mention in public.

How can this be? Well, political correctness, a phrase the political right loves and the left hates, is one reason. It was worries over this that forced the NGO Population Concern to rebrand itself as Interact Worldwide. The word concern was associated (wrongly in my view) with coercion and the “teeming millions of the developing world” theory. Anyway, the strategy has been to move away from this to focus on the message that the population debate is not just about numbers but how people live their lives. One rich person can cause more harm to the planet than many poor ones.

In recent years the rapidly evolving methodology for ecological footprinting – environment by numbers – has helped make the point. The latest Living Planet report, for instance, tells us that in 2001 humanity overshot the Earth’s annual biological capacity by some 20%, and that the average US citizen has 12 times the global impact of one Indian. India, with its 1.1 billion people, is conventionally thought of as being overpopulated. But the fact is that the USA has a greater negative impact on the planet by a factor of three to one. The reason for this is simple: consumerism.

The USA, the UK and the developed industrialised world is hard-wired to economic growth. People are now regarded, by politicians, as economic units contributing to gross domestic product at the expense of gross domestic happiness. They haven’t figured – or choose not to acknowledge – that more people living consumer lifestyles means faster climate change.

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