The Guardian's enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, argues it is time we went to war with the corporate sector or that part of it that enables today's throw-away consumerism.
Do you believe in miracles? If so, please form an orderly queue. Plenty of people imagine we can carry on as we are, as long as we substitute one material for another. Last month, a request to Starbucks and Costa to replace their plastic coffee cups with cups made from corn starch was retweeted 60,000 times, before it was deleted.
Those who supported this call failed to ask themselves where the corn starch would come from, how much land would be needed to grow it, or how much food production it would displace. They overlooked the damage this cultivation would inflict: growing corn (maize) is notorious for causing soil erosion, and often requires heavy doses of pesticides and fertilisers.
The problem is not just plastic: it is mass disposability. Or, to put it another way, the problem is pursuing, on the one planet known to harbour life, a four-planet lifestyle. Regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems.
...But we cannot address our environmental crisis by swapping one overused resource for another. When I challenged that call, some people asked me, “So what should we use instead?”
The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.Monbiot contends that too many well-intentioned people believe that a better form of consumerism can save the planet.
This perfectly represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.He argues that changing our consumption habits is a diversion. We must instead focus on political change.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the government massacred the Simple Lifers. This is generally unnecessary: today they can safely be marginalised, insulted and dismissed. The ideology of consumption is so prevalent that it has become invisible: it is the plastic soup in which we swim.
One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.
As last month’s Hothouse Earth paper, which warned of the danger of flipping the planet into a new, irreversible climatic state, concluded: “Incremental linear changes … are not enough to stabilise the Earth system. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold.”
Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.What Monbiot champions, albeit obliquely, sounds a great deal like "steady state" economic theory. It is based on the notion that humankind and our global economy, now grown wildly beyond the carrying capacity of Earth's ecology, must be reined in and brought safely back inside. That, in turn, requires that we adopt steady state policies governing everything from our population to production and consumption. It's not as dire as you may imagine but the alternative certainly is and that's where we're headed.