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Cheap consumerism costs the earth

Apr 01, 2005 Strategy, Wajibu Magazine

We are a strange species, we human beings. We alone have been granted higher consciousness; yet we use this to treat the planet as our exclusive domain. All other creatures and life forms must be regarded as ‘resources’: to be exploited and controlled for our economic gain and personal comforts. Or, to put it politely, we engage in ‘consumptive utilisation’.

So when we see a sheep with wool on its body, we immediately set about removing it so that we can stay warm ourselves. When we see a cow feeding her young, we immediately set about taking the milk for our own consumption. When we see beautiful rose flowers growing wild on a bush, we immediately require that even more perfectly formed roses should be placed in vases on our dining tables. Not content to watch wildlife teeming on the plains, we demand that the animals be placed in cages close to our homes for more convenient viewing.

This would not be so bad if it was done at minimal level. But no, we have higher intelligence and we can do things on a grand scale! We can set up entire industries that produce milk, wool and flowers in huge quantities. We have set up a global supply chain that grafts rose plants incessantly until the perfectly symmetrical flower with just the right colour can be sent whizzing to the table of the modern consumer in Europe. We can turn nature into an industrial concern by breeding battery chickens packed to the rooftops and slaughtered in large numbers using highly efficient equipment.

Just good business, is it not? Economic growth demands that resources should be harnessed in the most efficient way. Doing things on a large scale means that we can make economies. Using our scientific knowledge to re-engineer nature shows our intellectual prowess. The benefits: cheap chickens, flowers and milk on our doorsteps. The consumer is king of the earth.

What’s the problem with this? Who on earth would want to get in the way of growth, development and cheap products? Depends on what you consider ‘cheap’. In many ways, all our extractions, productions, consumptions and emissions are, quite literally, costing us the earth. For centuries we’ve been clearing forests, burning coal, gas, and oil, and pouring carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at a faster and faster rate. It’s payback time.

Scientists now confirm that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has ever been before. Many feel that we’re now going to pay for messing around with the planet’s thermostat. This was covered exhaustively in a recent issue of National Geographic. A few examples tell the tale. The number of glaciers in the USA’s famous Glacier National Park has shrunk from 150 when it was opened in 1910 to just 30 today. As ocean levels continue to rise, the Maldives islands, a top international tourist destination in the Indian Ocean, are now forced to confront the possibility, nay, probability, of their disappearing off the map of the planet altogether,. Lake Chad, once one of Africa’s largest lakes, has withered away to just a tenth of its area in the early 1960s. Closer to home, the famous, ancient snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing before our very eyes.

Melting ice, rising oceans. Longer droughts, disappearing species. Bleached corals and habitat destruction. The average temperature on earth may be two to five degrees higher over the next hundred years. That doesn’t sound like much, but scientists tell us that the results may be dramatic. Where are we going with this? Who will suffer the most? Here’s a clue: which part of the world is already suffering from widespread poverty and is dependent on subsistence agriculture, and therefore must vulnerable to the effects of climate change? Ah, yes: that would be Africa. We missed out on the boom, and will get a full-frontal blast when the payback comes.

Don’t get me wrong: I like my comforts as much as the next person. I appreciate my car, and the electric power that feeds my various appliances. I like the fact that my waste disappears efficiently from my house, going who-knows-where. I’m happy that food is relatively cheap and abundant. I would like this lifestyle to continue. But doubts set in when I follow the supply chain. Visit a battery chicken factory and see what is done to those little chicks before you eat that chicken burger. Go to Lake Naivasha and see how it’s become a dumping pool for pesticide run-off. Go to Nairobi’s dump sites and see if you can bear the stench for more than a few seconds. It’s because we consume with our eyes wilfully closed that we can’t see the effects of our economic growth, the consequences of our comfort.

This wilful ignorance of consequences leads to some interesting behaviour. The western world cleared most of its once-ample forests and killed off its biodiversity. Today, it lectures poor Africans on the need to conserve wildlife and castigates poor South Americans about depleting the rainforest. What was good for us is now bad for you, they say. Mindless consumptive utilisation is sheer folly, they say. Right. Thank you for your concern.

Economic gain is never devoid of consequences. A sensible society learns balance, learns how to weigh benefits against costs, both immediate and long-term. For all our high intelligence, the sort of balance that comes naturally to lesser species seems to escape us. Professor Jared Diamond has recently published a book, ‘Collapse’, which suggests that many ancient civilisations actually “committed ecological suicide”, resulting from inadvertent human impacts on the environment. He chronicles archaeological and other evidence that shows how once-vibrant societies, from the Easter Islands to the Indus Valley, from the United States to Zimbabwe, collapsed because of mindless resource utilisation – deforestation, over-fishing, desalination and the like. And yet these were societies far smaller, and with far less potent weapons of destruction, than is the case today. They also hadn’t done enough to cause the mother of all environmental consequences, global warming.

The writing is on the wall, but many of us choose to look the other way. We choose to promote headlong growth and mindless consumption. We are in a feeding frenzy, and will eat ourselves when everything else runs out.

The central problem is that we are not reflecting the true costs of our activities. Cut flowers are cheap in Europe because they do not capture the costs of polluting Lake Naivasha. Nairobi’s ubiquitous roast chicken is cheap because the cost of cruel production is invisible. If we applied our famous human intelligence to this problem, we would produce things to a level that made economic sense. We would consume after being forced to recognise the cost of that production. The price mechanism provides a ready tool to align our comfort with the planet’s capacity. Unfortunately, producers do not make money that way. They make money by pretending things can be produced cheaply, by ignoring consequences. In the short run, they make a lot of money; in the long run, they will wreck everything before us.

Only society as a whole, through its governments and regulators, can have the vision to see this. Economists have long advocated the ‘polluter pays’ rule – that producers who impose costs on the environment must pay those costs in full, either through enforced clean-ups or very specific polluter taxes. The cost must then be imbedded in the price of the final product, so that consumers react accordingly. Reinforcing this rule has, of course, been another matter altogether. The government that can stand up to big business and the voracious appetites of the mass consumer has yet to be found. As so we all sit in this ramshackle bus, belted in, belching toxic smoke as we head for the edge of the escarpment, producing and consuming our way to extinction.

Ah, higher consciousness! The remarkable phenomenon that allows us to use our minds to feed our senses and manipulate our emotions, to no one’s gain. A Creator’s joke, if ever there was one.

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