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Still accelerating

But it’s time to stop living for consumption

by John Gibbons

One of the innate limitations of living in any given era is the innate assumption that the way things are is how they have always been, and will continue, more or less, into the foreseeable future. In a time of rapid shift, such assumptions can be fatal.

Over the last seven decades or so since 1950, the world has embarked on an era known as the Great Acceleration. In this era, the solution to every problem and the very goal of human endeavour all seemed to be the pursuit of growth and with it, ever-increasing standards of material comfort.

At the dawn of this new age, in 1955, economist Victor Lebow wrote a stunningly prescient article for the US Journal of Retailing. His key insight was to realise that, for the first time in human history, industrial output exceeded public demand for products. “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption”.

He added: “we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption”.

While presented as though it were human nature itself, consumerism is simply a clever ruse dreamed up by marketing Mad Men charged with persuading the public to buy ever more stuff. Not in their wildest fantasies could Lebow and his colleagues have truly understood what forces they were unleashing on the world, and how, decades later, this spiralling global orgy of consumption would have trashed the planet to the point where it teeters on the brink of the ecological abyss.

It was never just about consumption. To justify this spree, “we erected new politics, new ideologies and new institutions predicated on continuous growth”, according to author JR McNeill. Writing in 2000, he warned: “Should this age of exuberance end, or even taper off, we will face another set of wrenching adjustments”.

Now, some twenty years later, instead of heeding the ever more insistent warnings from the scientific community that critical planetary thresholds were being breached, humanity has instead doubled down, further accelerating growth, consumption, resource depletion and pollution throughout our already stressed biosphere.

The recent report from the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) on the parlous state of carbon emissions didn’t pull any punches. “The summary findings are bleak”, it noted. ‘Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required”.

The report says that emissions have gone up by 1.5% every year for the last decade. In 2018, the total reached 55 thousand million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The UNEP report noted that this rate of emissions will deliver a catastrophic rise in global average surface temperature of some 3.2ºC by the end of the century, if not sooner.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) late last year set out in the starkest terms the dangers of allowing global temperatures to rise by more than 1.5ºC this century (they have already risen by just over 1ºC).

To have any chance of meeting these targets, emissions need to be cut across every country, every economy and every sector by an average of 7.6% per annum, every year for at least the next decade. This would have to mean sharp declines in living standards across the entire developed world. Largely non-essential sectors, from aviation to tourism would need to dramatically contract over the next decade, as would the use of private cars and the consumption of all meats, including of virtually all red meat.

The reality is of course that no government on Earth is planning anything of the kind, and even if some brave politician or party were to come forward with such an extreme austerity programme, they would face sure and certain obliteration at the ballot box.

The science says that countries like Ireland need to drastically decarbonise every aspect of their economies, food systems and societies as a whole, or face ruin. Yet the response of our Taoiseach has been to talk up the merits of re-usable keep cups while half-heartedly rolling out a Climate Action Plan that was designed to fail. Meanwhile, Ireland’s Chief Scientific Advisor thinks some carbon-sucking technology is going to magically appear and somehow scale up to solve the greatest crisis in human history.

Magical thinking used to be something we associated with hippies, dropouts and dreamers. Now, it’s what passes for policy among the ‘serious’ people like economists, politicians and senior public officials and advisors. We may not be lions, but we are assuredly led by donkeys.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator @think_or_swim