The article that popped up in my news feed was titled ‘Green growth’ doesn’t exist – less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe. My first thought was, “I hope George Monbiot didn’t write it.” So I click on the article and, of course, George Monbiot wrote it.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t reacting out of any dislike for Monbiot. He is one of my heroes, a legend as both a journalist and an activist. (Please, just read his bio or the comical wikipedia summary of his life or the most blunt career advice you’ve ever seen.) He has written on the issue of overconsumption on multiple occasions before (such as the Gift of Death article) and he illuminates the issue well.
No, the disappointment came because I was desperately hoping that anyone other than Monbiot was writing about this stuff. Monbiot has written fantastic articles on overconsumption before and he will do so again. How many other voices are going to join him? Can anyone else with a platform focus on one of the defining issues of our age?
For now it looks like it will be Monbiot again. So here we go. The entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on these paragraphs:
Look at moths in the UK. We know they are being harmed by pesticides. But the impact of these toxins on moths has been researched, as far as I can discover, only individually. Studies of bees show that when pesticides are combined, their effects are synergistic: in other words, the damage they each cause isn’t added, but multiplied. When pesticides are combined with fungicides and herbicides, the effects are multiplied again.
Simultaneously, moth caterpillars are losing their food plants, thanks to fertilisers and habitat destruction. Climate chaos has also knocked their reproductive cycle out of sync with the opening of the flowers on which the adults depend. Now we discover that light pollution has devastating effects on their breeding success. The switch from orange sodium streetlights to white LEDs saves energy, but their wider colour spectrum turns out to be disastrous for insects. Light pollution is spreading rapidly, even around protected areas, affecting animals almost everywhere….
The various impacts have a common cause: the sheer volume of economic activity. We are doing too much of almost everything, and the world’s living systems cannot bear it.
The three people on this planet who are ultra-familiar with my writing may recognize that I put forth a remarkably similar argument in my final article for the Living Alongside Wildlife blog in 2018. This is what I had to say about the tremendous combined impacts that were devastating reptiles and amphibians across California:
In an ideal world, we could identify the threats to wildlife one-by-one and then work to reduce them. Unfortunately, the threats may be too numerous for this piecemeal approach. In this blog series I’ve identified herps in trouble due to urban sprawl and rural agriculture, irrigation and drought, fire and dams, chytrid fungus and global warming, highway construction and off-road ATVs, garbage dumps and livestock grazing, pesticides and invasive plants, roadkill and hiking impacts, logging, mining, fishing, and all kinds of introduced predators.
That list is not exhaustive – human existence infringes on herps in almost every facet. I could also have written of the perils of sound pollution, light pollution, or renewable energy development. Other threats may not yet be known. We often address one threat only to see another crop up, or improve the situation for one species then find that our actions have indirectly harmed others….
A necessary part of the answer, in my evaluation, is that we address many of the threats at once. And the easiest way to address many threats at once is to reduce our ecological footprint by reducing our consumption.
Monbiot also points out that the massive mining levels required to produce “green” batteries are threatening habitats across the world and responsible for a great degree of pollution. Technological measures to “capture carbon” out of the air would require so much infrastructure that they would similarly create new mining catastrophes. He could have mentioned that companies providing fuel for “clean” biomass operations are laying waste to American forests and that the ethanol campaign produces its own environmental destruction.
This isn’t to say that some technology isn’t worse than others. But all technology has a cost, and the more we use the greater the costs. Thus I see no realistic manner in which technology will save us from the environmental calamity we have set into motion. We are doing too much harm, in too many different ways, with too many “unintended side effects” in the solutions, to solve this problem with better tech.
As Monbiot says, the sheer volume of economic activity is too high. We need to consume less. We need to stop buying new clothing every year, new phones every two years, new televisions every five years. We need to cut down on the flights, cut down on the commutes, cut down on the toys, cut down on the Amazon deliveries, cut down on the alcohol, cut down on the seafood, cut down on the beef.
We need to think less about electric vehicles and more about how we can be 1 or 0 car families. We need to worry less about “greening” our home and more about whether we really need anything over 1,000 square feet for a single-family dwelling.
Will that reduce the quality of our lives? My family has lived those choices and our lives are better for it. The true #1 contributor to overconsumption has been corporate advertising driven by the incessant need for corporate growth. And that corporate advertising, not true needs, is what drives discontent. You’ll be happier sticking with the same phone 10 years than always switching to a new one, you’ll be satisfied with your 10-year-old television if you’re not watching the advertisements for the bigger one. Research proves that long commutes destroy life happiness more than any other daily activity, whereas my experience is that riding a bicycle or getting work done on the bus is infinitely preferable. The 274 pounds of meat consumed each by the average American is 1500% higher than the 18 pounds a year recommended by the Mayo Clinic and contributes to the increasing obesity and degrading health of the average American that has been thrown in our faces so starkly during this pandemic.
If you like, here are practical tips for simplifying your life and here are some ideas specific to our upcoming Christmas. I have much more I could say about downsizing lawns, using more hand-me-downs, vacationing locally, avoiding air conditioning, and on and on.
But you get the point by now. Consuming less is our only way out. There is no other option.
And I hope someone other than George Monbiot starts preaching this pretty soon.
note – the featured photo at the top of this article shows the Enviva biomass plant in Sampson County, North Carolina. The plant produces “green” electricity by logging 15,000 acres of forest every year. The facility is classified as a Major Air Polluter due to the quantity of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants emitted, not to mention the 1,203,595 tons of carbon dioxide. Besides the expected pollutants, it has a history of fines for equipment failures that led to excess pollution emitted, as well as a failure to control dust coming from the plant and repeat issues of fires breaking out. The Sampson County plant is just one of three such biomass plants run by Enviva in North Carolina.