What is our biggest problem?
Broadcast ABC Radio National                                      27 November  2005 

Ted Trainer
School of Social Work at the University of New South Wales.

The fundamental cause of the big global problems threatening us now is simply over-consumption. The rate at which we in rich countries are using up resources is grossly unsustainable. It’s far beyond levels that can be kept up for long or that could be spread to all people. What is not clearly understood is the magnitude of the over-shoot. The reductions required are so big that they cannot be achieved within a consumer-capitalist society. Huge and extremely radical change in systems and culture are necessary.

Several lines of argument lead to this conclusion, but I’ll note only three.

Some resources are already alarmingly scarce, including water, land, fish and especially petroleum. Some geologists think oil supply will peak within a decade. If all the world’s people today were to consume resources at the per capita rate we in rich countries do, annual supply would have to be more than six times as great as at present, and if the 9 billion we will have on earth soon were to do so, it would have to be about ten times as great.

Secondly, the per capita area of productive land needed to supply one Australian with food, water, settlements and energy is about seven to eight hectares. The US figure is close to 12 hectares. But the average per capita area of productive land available on the planet is only about 1.3 hectares. When the world’s population reaches 9 billion the per capita area of productive land available will be only .9 hectares. In other words, in a world where resources were shared equally we would have to get by on about 13% of the average Australian footprint.

Third, the greenhouse problem is the most powerful and alarming illustration of the overshoot. The atmospheric scientists are telling us that if we are to stop the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere from reaching twice the pre-industrial level, we have to cut global carbon emissions and thus fossil fuel use by 60% in the short term, and more later. If we did that and shared the remaining energy among 9 billion people, each Australian would have to get by on about 5% of the fossil fuel now used. And that target, a doubling of atmospheric CO2, is much too high. We’re now 30% above pre-industrial levels and already seeing disturbing climatic effects.

These lines of argument show we must face up to enormous reductions in rich world resource use if we’re to solve the big global problems. This is not possible in a society that’s committed to the affluent lifestyles that require high energy and resource use. We in countries like Australia should reduce per capita resource use and environmental impact, to something like one-tenth of their present levels.

Now all that only makes clear that the present situation is grossly unsustainable. But that’s not the most important problem. This society is fundamentally and fiercely obsessed with raising levels of production and consumption all the time, as fast as possible, and without any limit. In other words, our supreme, sacred, never-questioned goal is economic growth. We’re already at impossible levels of production and consumption but our top priority is to go on increasing them all the time.

If we in Australia average 3% growth to 2070 and by then the 9 billion people expected on earth have all risen to the living standards we would have then, total world economic output each year would be 60 times as great as it is now. Yet the present level is grossly unsustainable.

Many respond here by saying that Yes, the problems are very serious but No, we don’t have to think about moving from consumer-capitalist society because more effort and better technology could solve the problems. It only takes a few seconds to show that this tech-fix position is wrong. The overshoot is far too big.

Technical-fix optimists like Amory Lovins claim we could cut the resource and ecological costs per unit of economic output to half or one quarter. But if global output rose to 60 times what it is now, even a Factor Four reduction by 2070 would leave global resource and environmental costs 15 times as great as they are now, and they are unsustainable now.

The foregoing comment has only been about sustainability and our society is built on a second deeply flawed foundation. We have an extremely unjust global economy. It’s a market economy and that means scarce things go to those who can pay most for them, that is, to the rich and not to the poor. So the rich countries gobble up most of the world’s resource production.

Even more important, in a market economy what’s developed is what’s most profitable not what’s most needed. So the development that takes place in the Third World is development of what will maximise the profits of corporations. Look at any Third World country and you see a lot of development but most of it puts their resources into producing to stock our rich world supermarkets and very little goes into the industries that produce the basic necessities the majority of poor people need. Conventional development is therefore well described as a process of plunder.

Our living standards in countries like Australia could not be anywhere near as high as they are if these unjust processes did not occur and we had to get by on our fair share of the world’s resources.

If one is to understand the nature of the problems facing us, one must focus on these concepts of gross unsustainability and injustice. For instance, they show that the conventional concept of ‘development’ for the Third World is totally impossible; there are nowhere near enough resources for all of them to rise to anything like our rich world ways and standards. Yet that’s the taken-for-granted goal of development.

Similarly few green people seem to recognise that the environment problem cannot be solved without dramatic reduction in the level of producing and consuming going on, and therefore without radical social change to frugal living standards and a zero-growth economy. Yet our peak environmental agencies do not focus on the absurdity of the quest for economic growth.

And how many within the Peace movement realise that if we refuse to dramatically cut rich world demand for resources, and everyone strives to rise to our living standards, then there will inevitably be increasingly fierce competition for the dwindling resources. If we insist on remaining affluent, then we had better remain heavily armed. We can’t expect to go on getting far more than our fair share of the world’s resources unless we’re prepared to use force to invade oil fields and prop up compliant dictators.

What then is the answer? If the question is how can we run a sustainable and just consumer-capitalist society, the point is that there isn’t any answer. We cannot achieve a sustainable and just society unless we face up to huge and radical transition to what some identify as The Simpler Way, that is to a society based on non-affluent but adequate living standards, high levels of self-sufficiency, in small scale localised economies with little trade and no growth, to basically co-operative and participatory communities, to an economy that’s not driven by market forces and profit, and most difficult of all, a society that’s not motivated by competition, individualism, and acquisitiveness. Many have argued that this general vision is the only way out of the mess we’re in.

So which of these problems is our biggest one? None of them. The most disturbing problem of all is our failure, our refusal to even recognise that the pursuit of affluence and growth is a terrible mistake.

Despite our vast educational systems, information technologies and media networks, despite having hordes of academics and experts, there is almost no official or public recognition that the quest for affluence and growth is the basic cause of our alarming global predicament. There is no recognition of any need to move to The Simpler Way. These themes are almost never mentioned in the media, educational curricula, or government pronouncements.

We are dealing here with a fascinating and powerful ideological phenomenon, a failure, indeed a refusal, to even think about the possibility that we are sitting on the railway tracks and there is a train fast approaching. It would be difficult to imagine a more profound case of denial and delusion. Some of the forces at work are understandable, such as the fact that profit driven media are not going to raise such issues but will work hard to seduce people into preoccupation with trivia, sport, celebrities and mindless consuming. But how do you explain why so very few academics and intellectuals concern themselves with these themes while many of them work at providing the economy with the technocrats, the managers, and the mentality that it needs.

Obviously the corporate class is most culpable. Their very existence depends on maintaining the conviction that we need not even think about reducing consumption. The economists are high on the list too, teaching and practising an ideology, which casts the consumer capitalist way as the only conceivable way. But why do the educators so diligently teach that worldview. Why do the curriculum makers, and the ABC program makers, and journalists and the intellectual ranks so studiously avoid any reference to limits or the possibility that affluence and growth are suicidal goals or the possibility that survival requires urgent transition to some kind of Simpler Way? How can it be that almost all of our most intelligent and educated people devote themselves to pursuits which never challenge over-consumption and have nothing to do with the sustainability crisis now threatening the survival of all of us.

Toynbee analysed the fate of civilisations in terms of their capacity to respond to challenges. What then are our prospects, given that we cannot even recognise that we are committed to fatally mistaken goals.

If the thing threatening our survival was a comet headed for earth, or a global flu epidemic, or another Hitler, there would instantly be focused attention and energetic and massive effort to deal with it. But what’s threatening us is the very thing that is cherished in consumer society above all else, greater material wealth. We suffer from the blinding curse of affluence. The situation was summed up elegantly by that insightful analyst, George W. Bush, when he said recently ‘The American way of life is not negotiable’.

The greatest tragedy is that we could quickly and easily move to sustainable and just ways, if we wanted to. Essentially that would involve people in suburbs and towns getting together to organise local economies with small farms and firms using local resources and labour, to produce to meet local needs. There would be many voluntary working bees and committees and town meetings. Some things would be free, such as fruit from trees planted on the commons. For the detail see The Simpler Way website.

This could be a far more satisfying way of life. Consider being able to live well on two days work for money a week, without any threat of unemployment, or insecurity in old age, in a supportive community. These are the kinds of conditions that thousands of people enjoy in eco-villages around the world. Many of these communities are trying to demonstrate the alternative ways to which the mainstream can move.

I believe we are now entering a time of rapidly intensifying problems which will impact heavily on the complacency within the rich countries. The coming peak of petroleum supply might concentrate minds wonderfully, but I think the probability of us achieving the transition is very low.

Your chances in the next few decades will depend very much on whether your region manages to build local economies, and whether the people living there are willing to shift to frugal, co-operative and self-sufficient ways.

REFERENCES: at http://socialwork.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/