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Three years ago, I felt like a bit of a loan voice. I’d been increasingly highlighting my concerns about a mounting reliance on a magic bullet (or a number of them) to mitigate against climate change. But, most of the time, I just got glazed looks, or doe-eyed responses from proponents of technological fixes (e.g. nuclear or carbon capture and storage) that: ‘all I care about is preventing runaway climate change’. As if I don’t.
But now, two mechanical engineers, Patrick Moriaty and Damon Honnery have published a paper that sums up part of my argument.
I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.
The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.
But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.
Yesterday myself and a few colleagues headed down to the Design Museum, London for the launch of Sustainable Futures – Can Design Save the World? a new exhibition that:
presents key examples of how design can deliver a more sustainable future. The exhibition examines not only the objects themselves but also the infrastructure in which objects are produced and exist. At a time when designers and architects are under pressure to ‘think green’ and education establishments are placing greater emphasis on sustainability in the curriculum, this exhibition highlights how design can, literally, help save the world.
And, the exhibition features our very own Ration Me Up monthly carbon ration book.
Today, new zero-carbon energy company Lemonadability launches the first electricity tariff, fuelled entirely by lemons.
CEO and Lemonadability founder, Arthur Citrus says, ‘ it came to me one evening after a Gin and Tonic. I’d become increasingly worried by climate change and peak oil. And then it suddenly it dawned on me – in my school days we carried out an experiment with a zinc and copper electrode and a lemon. We made enough electricity to light up a small LED. And it just went from there.’
The piece usefully reflects on the “intuitive” sense that money doesn’t buy happiness, an intuition reflected in the findings of well-being research. Even so, it doesn’t get the interpretation of the Index quite right. It says:
“the United States ranks as low as most of sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, consuming more than our share of resources doesn’t make us happier, despite the fact that we live almost twice as long than those in sub-Saharan Africa who consume very little.”
This suggest that life satisfaction scores (how the HPI measures happiness) in the US are as low as in sub-Sarahan Africa. They aren’t. But what the HPI does show is that Americans are producing fewer units of well-being per units of resources consumed than countries like Malawi and Congo. Which is a sobering thought indeed for the champions of consumption who constitute the vast majority of Davos participants.
The West’s most viral idea is that of material utility. Somehow everyday lives have become organised around a belief that happiness is really just an aggregation of price tags. We can’t be saturated; not even the sky’s the limit. In our Lego-lives we are always looking to buy the right piece – or, more often, pieces – to fill it. Flying to a holiday destination, buying fabulous clothes, driving luxury cars and having the latest gadgets all get piled up into one big happy life. Underneath it all, far below, lays our Earth: the plants and animals that are just dying to make us happy.
The rapid increase in people’s use of the productive capacity of the biosphere is shown here. The late 1980’s saw us consuming more than the world’s biocapacity could provide. In a mirror image, the populations of many supporting organisms are declining, making them less able to cope with or expanding footprint. According to the WWF Living Planet report, we are already 30% above the planet’s biological capacity- likely to be an underestimate considering their calculations excluded aspects of consumption that did not have regenerative capacity. But, as the nef report The Consumption Explosion puts it, the average per capita levels of consumption in developing countries have changed little over many decades. “In rich countries, however, we are each consuming vastly more, yet with little or nothing to show for it in terms of greater life satisfaction.”
Trends in populations of terrestrial, marine, and freshwater vertebrate species
(both graphs from the Living Planet Index)
So what is to be done?
Well, that depends on which camp you fall into really. The debate is extremely polarised. On the one hand there are the likes of the Optimum Population Trust saying that there are just too many people on this planet. On the other, you’ve got development activists– rightly frightened by the prospect of neo-colonial population control measures – saying it’s all about the over-consumption of those living in rich countries. As is often the case when debates are polarised, the evidence suggests that this framing – where it is either population or consumption – is a false dichotomy and actually unhelpful if our goal is about living well and within environmental limits. Let me take you through the numbers.
Starting with population…
The world population is currently around 6.7 billion. Some expect this to increase exponentially, like bacteria, until resource constraints kick in. When resources become a limiting factor and waste concentration rises, the bacterial growth phase plateaus, followed by collapse with the depletion of resources. Concerned that, like bacteria, human population might be headed for a similar demise some have started to ask what human population our world’s resources can sustain. While this question is legitimate, it is also misleading in our current circumstances (and we’re leaving aside for the moment the fact that we don’t really know the answer and that it could be completely unpalatable). It is misleading because, unlike bacteria, we are not in a fixed-capacity test tube but, rather, through our actions can impact on resource availability in quite dramatic ways It is true that we do not have infinite resources, but we can make more or less of what we’ve got.
Consumption vs. Population
So we’ve established that human populations and bacterial populations are not quite the same thing, which is a bit of a relief. We have the ability to manage our resources, and our technology is ever-progressing. Our economic system is geared to manage scarcity, acting as the middle man. Natural resources are accessed ‘freely’, processed, and then sold to the consumer. The amount of money flowing from consumers dictates how much of a resource is taken.
So let’s look at the figures on population and consumption. The WWF Living Planet report graphed the ecological footprints and population sizes by region in 1961 and 2005. Quite clearly the main driving force for a large ecological footprint is not population (though it is a factor) but consumption.
In his forthcoming book Peoplequake Fred Pearce discusses the findings of Stephen Pacala, Director of the Princeton Environmental Institute. Pacala finds that the richest 500 million people (7% of the world’s population) are responsible for 50% of global emissions. This compares with the poorest 50% emitting just 7%.
With Power Comes Responsibility
The graphs dramatically show that developed countries are far more responsible for the global environmental impact than developing countries, both historically and currently. It is no coincidence that they also wield massive global power.
Here are a couple more stats that show just how culpable consumers in rich countries are for the environmental degradation that’s occurring. According to the Global Footprint Network, Denmark’s ecological footprint is 7.2 global hectares per person, or twelve times that of Malawi. A recent nef report found that, starting a New Year, “one person in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2 January, already have been responsible for the equivalent in climate change causing carbon emissions that a Tanzanian would take a whole year to generate. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January”.
These stats aren’t license to dismiss the role of population. But, as environmental activist George Monbiot says, the problem posed by population growth is many times over eclipsed by the consumption of the rich: “economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth”. The most urgent challenge is to make the transition to an economically viable system that manages the world’s resources in a sustainable and equitable way. And so, in the famous words of The Tick, “Hey! You in the pumps! I say to you – stop being bad!”
The mother of all hangovers on 1 January 2010 has nothing to do with alcohol. From London to Washington DC it’s the result of waking up to find that the world’s most populated country, in whose economy we are inextricably entwined, doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. From deciding the fate of civilisation’s climate, to the judicial killing of mentally ill people, China, bluntly, is going its own way. But world leaders or newspaper columnists pompously taking the moral high ground against such a disdainful dictatorship is quite futile. The shape of the current global economic realignment has a momentum and trajectory shaped by centuries of geopolitics. It also has a direction that we, having created and gloried in the consumerist model, are actively still encouraging. Only last August Tony Blair defended a tripling of traffic in China over the next decade.
Unless these dynamics are understood, no amount of hand-wringing at United Nations’ climate conferences or on national news will make the slightest difference.
The great economic historian Paul Bairoch pointed how, up until the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was probably lower than that of the rest of the world. In 1700 China’s share of world GDP was estimated to be just under a quarter, on a par with Europe and India. By the middle of the 20th century, two and a half centuries later, Europe’s share had risen to nearly a third while China’s had fallen to 5%, and India’s to under 4%. Was this the result of the internal brilliance, creativity and liberating power of the free market? On the contrary, it was more to do with the fact that their competition was, “forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and (in the case of Britain) a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs,” according to historian Mike Davis.
History does not excuse China playing hardball with the environmental future of humanity (not to mention human rights and democracy), but it certainly goes a long way to explaining their dismissive attitude to the exhortations of the international community. India’s approach to climate negotiations can fall into a similar category.
We are in a trap of our own making, both historically and in the way that China’s current economic development is premised on rising consumption in places like Europe and North America, where people already over-consume.
It’s not only to do with climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Whether its rare minerals and timber from Africa, or farmland elsewhere in Asia, China is scouring the world to feed its export-led development strategy. In September last year, scientists reported in the journal Nature that globally we have already crossed the safe planetary boundaries of three out of nine critical environmental life support systems. Growing aggregate world consumption and waste production cannot be further sustained.
But China follows a simple logic. Rather than the flawed model that defeated so many developing countries, by integrating into the world and trading more on its own terms, all China is doing, ironically, is to emulate what worked for Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now, with just 83 months to go before it is no longer “likely”, to use the IPCC definition of climate change risk, that we will stay below the critical 2 degree temperature rise, our options are limited. Rich countries have no choice but to lead by example in setting a different, less destructive model for economic success, that does not rely on endless growth in consumption. This has barely begun. They also have to realise that the hollow annual charade at meetings of the G8 or G20, which endorses greater global economic equality but then ignores the mechanics of its delivery will have to end. With relatively painless innovations like the financial transactions tax, it easily could.
We have seven years to turn things around until the end of 2016. The power of seven: the number of sins, the hills upon which Rome was built and the ages of man. Perhaps more important now is the notion of the seventh generation, to consider what will be the impact of decisions made today on seven generations hence. You could call it the “responsibility of the long now,’ an approach used by many indigenous people that forces us to connect across time to those you could not possibly know. A greater sense of history may help us negotiate more effectively with China. A greater sensitivity to the future may enable us to live better with ourselves. Happy new year, and make every month count …
If you are behind in your Christmas shopping, this is the perfect intellectual excuse for your shortcomings. In his new book Scroogenomics, Joel Waldfogel claims that Christmas is an economic calamity of the order of the worst natural disasters. The professor from the University of Pennsylvania blames the winter celebrations for the destruction of a full $12 billion of wealth.
What is so seriously wrong with Christmas? Waldfogel believes that it is festival of inefficiency, where people give each other things of little use. The reason is simply that people don’t understand one another and are poor judges of other people’s preferences. Your close ones may display delight from your gifts, but this is only polite deceit; in truth they would have found something better with the money you used.
Waldfogel’s claims are based on a survey he has done with potential victims of Christmas. He asked a range of people how much they would be willing to pay for the things they had been given. It showed that, as a rule, gifts were worth one fifth less to their recipients than their actual price. That new jumper that your aunt bought you for £50? You may find that it is not worth a pence over £40. This means that economic value of £10 has disappeared into thin air.
Waldfogel is right to question how much just producing precious commodities adds to social welfare. In trying to adjust measures of exchange value to better reflect the worth of things he comes close to much of the work that nef has been pioneering.
At the same time, Waldfogel suffers from a bias that is not untypical to people of his profession. In his view the only good that can result from gifts is the utility that the recipient gets from the commodities exchanging hands. If the object does not match the wishes of its receiver, the whole ordeal has been a waste. Does this view not miss many important sides of our habits of giving? Some examples can show what Waldfogel forgets to take into account.
There are times when the usefulness of the goods being given is completely secondary. One extreme example of this is the tradition of potlach, observed by some natives of North America. In its most extravagant form, potlach involved chiefs giving away valuable pots, blankets and food, which were promptly destroyed and burned after being received. Potlach is a case where gifts are used to maintain certain types of social relations: The group that gives more lavishly is able to express and reassert their superior power. In less competitive settings, giving gifts can also support equal and communal relationships.
Modern societies have some practices more bizarre than potlach. One recent innovation are so-called charity gifts. By donating the right amount you can purchase, for instance, a goat for someone in a developing country, then give your donation as a present to someone else. It is unlike regular gifts because when the present exchanges hands, the owner of the goat stays the same. The point of the present is not to allow its receiver to get something new, but to let them assume the role of a benefactor. It is, to use an obscure term, a meta-gift: a gift of giving. What better proof could there be of the fact that people place value on giving things in itself?
Even when a gift is meant to be useful, it is not always given with the preferences of the other in mind. Some presents are aim to have an educative function. Here the point is not to match the recipient’s preferences. On the contrary, it is to actively shape them. For instance, I have been at times pretentious enough to give complicated books or fringe films with the hope of kindly nudging someone’s cultural tastes. To the credit Waldfogel and his approach to gifts, such attempts have never been met with much enthusiasm.
All the same, I would not recommend buying Scroogenomics as a gift. It seems like a guaranteed failure. If the premonition of the book is correct and you did not predict your friend’s preferences, they will be unhappy with the present. In case they enjoy your book and accept its message, they may berate you for so lavishly investing in a present.
On the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit we seem to be poised between the possibility of new directions for the world, and meek capitulation to environmental upheaval. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just months to take large-scale action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He calls on developing countries not to try to copy western consumer lifestyles.
In an interview to be broadcast on the BBC, he adds that growth and rising GDP are an “extremely harmful” way to measure human progress. Pachauri’s determination to think about fresh solutions, from championing less meat-eating to challenging bad economics, is a lesson to commentators who affect weariness and distaste at yet another reminder of the extreme consequences of our lifestyles.
It’s a call to rise above national and sectoral interests. But it’s not easy. Point scoring in global talks often becomes more important to negotiators than preserving a planet fit for civilisation. Worse still, as the problem becomes ever clearer, a collective cultural “Am I bovvered?” seems to rise from the most materially comfortable and least likely to suffer.
But are people really saying that it’s just not worth fighting for the climatic conditions that make life both enjoyable and possible? If somebody threatened your child, what would you do? Only the sociopathic or comatose would sit by and let the people they love be threatened without acting. Yet inadequate climate action is the equivalent of inviting threats to our offspring. And in front of us there are clear but diminishing opportunities that really could solve the problem. We’re still living in the grip of a consumption explosion. Our material consumption is rising at the same time that nature’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste is weakening. Human overuse seems to be undermining available biocapacity.
The latest data on humanity’s global ecological footprint makes worrying reading. The UK’s footprint makes our level of consumption even less sustainable: it would take at least 3.4 planets for everyone to live at our level. Globally we are using resources and pumping out carbon emissions at a rate 44% faster than the biosphere can take. It now takes just under 18 months for the earth to produce the ecological services humanity uses in one year.
As Pachauri writes in the foreword to a new report, Other Worlds Are Possible: “It is crucial that we engage in fresh ways of thinking about development and sustainability.” Too often rich countries excuse their own inaction by pointing at the rising consumption of poor countries – as if that is the true problem. It’s convenient, but ignores what many other voices from the global south are saying.
Writing in the same report, the leading Indian economist Professor Jayati Ghosh takes a different view: “The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by ‘the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, market and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.” The Chilean economist Professor Manfred Max-Neef is similarly dissenting: ‘Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and wellbeing.”
Some of those solutions are right under our noses, according to the energy researchers Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi. Writing in the November edition of Scientific American, they describe how, by 2030, the world could shift to a virtually zero carbon energy system. Their model is based only on existing technology that can already be applied on a large scale, and excludes nuclear power and fossil fuels. It calls for, globally, the building of 3.8m large wind turbines (wind being 25 times more carbon efficient than nuclear power), 90,000 solar plants and a combination of geothermal, tidal and rooftop solar-PV installations globally.
They admit the scheme is bold, but it follows Al Gore’s challenge for the US to abandon fossil fuel power in the next decade. In terms of the physical challenge of producing so much renewable generating capacity, they point out that the world already produces 73m cars and light trucks every year.
People forget, perhaps, the effort it took to get us hooked on oil in the first place. As Jacobson and Delucchi point out, starting in 1956 the US interstate highway system managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, “changing commerce and society”.
84 months and counting …
Who really picks up the bill for climate change? (Hat-tip to Climate Safety)
It’s always the poorest who end up paying, even though they’ve enjoyed very few of the things which have contributed towards our burgeoning ecological debt.
Debates about population growth and climate change continue to make headlines, despite all the evidence which puts the blame squarely on rich world consumption levels, rather than fertility rates in the developing world. nef recently published The Consumption Explosion, a report which seeks to ‘defuse’ theories about population explosion by showing the ecological costs of trade and consumption in the rich world.
As the film makes clear, the carbon footprints of people in rich, industrialised nations – such as Germany, the UK or the US – dwarf those of developing nations. A man or woman living in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2 January, already have been responsible for carbon emissions equivalent to what someone in living in Tanzania would generate in an entire year. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January.
New Scientist‘s Fred Pearce, who contributed to The Consumption Explosion, writes:
the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.
Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.
And if you think you don’t fall into the richest 7% of the world, it’s always worth checking.