Sunday, March 25, 2018

Our Least Recognized Existential Threat - Over Consumption

We tend to hear a lot about climate change and a fair bit about overpopulation but we hear less about our rapacious and, for the moment, growing over consumption of our planet's resources. This handy little graph (that I use so often) illustrates the problem.

That dotted black line is nature. It's nature's ecological carrying capacity. That's as much as nature can provide.

That red line, that's us. It reflects our pattern of consumption. Where the red line first crosses the dotted black line represents our maximum sustainable consumption level. When we go past it - and we've been doing that since the early70s - we begin to degrade Earth's carrying capacity. It ends in civilizational collapse which, hard as it is to say, is where we're heading.

Echoing that cheerful news is a new report on biodiversity out of the UN.

Human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding the world’s capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people, according to the most comprehensive biodiversity study in more than a decade.

Among the standout findings are that exploitable fisheries in the world’s most populous region – the Asia-Pacific – are on course to decline to zero by 2048; that freshwater availability in the Americas has halved since the 1950s and that 42% of land species in Europe have declined in the past decade.
Just like those other scientists we love to ignore, the climate change types with their endless warnings that we're hopelessly screwed if we don't rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels (haven't they heard how much bitumen we've got?), the over consumption wizards say the time to address their existential threat arrived a long time ago. Like their climate science colleagues they note that government is aware of the problem, understands what's at stake, but simply will not act.

“The time for action was yesterday or the day before,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which compiled the research. “Governments recognise we have a problem. Now we need action, but unfortunately the action we have now is not at the level we need.” 
“We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead,” he added.
They know the culprit. That's you (and, yes, they mentioned you by name).
The rate of decline is moreover accelerating. In the Americas – which has about 40% of the world’s remaining biodiversity – the regional population is gobbling up resources at twice the rate of the global average. Despite having 13% of the people on the planet, it is using a quarter of the resources, said Jake Rice, a co-chair of the Americas assessment. 
Since the start of colonisation by Europeans 500 years ago, he said 30% of biodiversity has been lost in the region. This will rise to 40% in the next 10 years unless policies and behaviours are transformed. 
It will take fundamental change in how we live as individuals, communities and corporations,” he said. “We keep making choices to borrow from the future to live well today. We need a different way of thinking about economics with a higher accountability of the costs in the future to the benefits we take today,” Rice said. 
“It’s because of us,” added Mark Rounsevell, co-chair of the European assessment. “We are responsible for all of the declines of biodiversity. We need to decouple economic growth from degradation of nature. We need to measure wealth beyond economic indicators. GDP only goes so far.
Unfortunately, Jack Rice has it all wrong. We don't "borrow" from the future as he alleges. Borrowing means taking with an intention to return. We don't borrow from our children and grandchildren. What we're doing is outright, willful theft.

Rounsevell has a better take. We absolutely must "decouple economic growth from degradation of nature." We do need different ways to measure and pursue progress. GDP, which Justin Trudeau, like his predecessors, still worships, is or soon will lead to catastrophe. Why he's no more enlightened on that than Harper continues to mystify me.

There  is still plenty of room for growth. There's lots of room for growth that will benefit us, growth that will improve our quality of life. It's just not growth in production, consumption and waste. We can and should cut GDP. One great way is to make consumer goods that last, products that are repairable and upgradeable throughout their extended lifespan. That comes down to a matter of choice. We can also grow - infinite growth - in knowledge. We don't have to descend into Idiocracy. We can choose enlightenment, the road to ever greater quality and enjoyment of life. We can find the means to live within the finite limits of our environment, our ecology, because living outside it as we have been these past four decades will end us.

It's a pretty obvious choice, isn't it?


bill said...

we only have to think back to our youth when we bought a 10 yr. old car for a couple of grand, changed the oil, spark plugs and air filter and much to our parents belief that we will die in that death trap drove it until we could afford a "new" 5 yr old car. I asked a couple of people in the auto industry recently what happens to 10 year old cars today. They could only guess that most of them ended up at the wreckers or sold to fools that would have to spend double what they were worth in repairs. The fact is that very few people today could even change the spark plugs in their car because you have to take half the engine compartment out to do it or have a hoist in your garage. Along with appliances that now officially have a 5 year life span according to repair men we are going bankrupt just staying alive. The last repair man asked me this, would you leave your computer in your car overnight and start it up at 40 below? Or would you put your computer on your stove and turn a burner on accross from it and expect it to keep working after doing that for a year? Then why would I expect cars and appliances run by computers to work very long under those harsh conditions?

The Mound of Sound said...

True enough, Bill, and yet we do have the knowledge and means to produce goods that are much more robust, repairable and upgradeable. We can but there's more profit in not letting that happen.

Case in point. I had a premium gas range. All the whistles and bells. It was great for the first three years. I got hit with a hefty bill to replace faulty electronics once. Two more good years. Then it failed again. This time the cost of that main control board had become astronomical. The repair guy said no one was going to guarantee it either. The only feasible choice was to replace it.

My first flatscreen TV, a Sony XBR, went on the blink. Sony had no parts but directed me to Reliable Parts in Vancouver. They were very helpful there were three electronic boards. It was cheaper to buy all three and replace the lot. It turned out the price for those three boards was reasonable. I went for it. That's when the sales woman apologized and said none of them was still available. Not one. Nowhere.

In 2015, the German government released a study on premature obsolescence.

Trailblazer said...


Tal Hartsfeld said...

A return to making consumer goods that last, all by itself, would be a cause for celebration and "braking out the good wine".

Tal Hartsfeld said...

"...BREAKING out the good wine..."

The Mound of Sound said...

Trailblazer, that image really spoke to me. It's true, of course, but how do we combat these failings? We can write about it, incessantly, yet there's no optimism to be had in that. What good are individual actions in what is really a societal problem?

The Mound of Sound said...

It would be a cause for celebration, Tal, but not everyone would share the joy. Today a huge segment of the manufacturing and consumer goods industry has come to depend on this obsolescence. Big Box counts on you needing a new applicance every five years. Their bottom line is based on those sales. And those corporations have clout.