Friday, 25 July 2014

All Consuming Growth

All Consuming Growth

The Flaw of Western Economies

by Marcin Gerwin

Let’s imagine a green and responsible consumer. Let’s call him George. George lives in a sleepy town, near the center and the park where he often goes for a walk with his dog.
George built his house with his friends two years ago. It is a very small house, only 320 square feet and it was made with cob – clay mixed with straw and aggregate. The clay for construction was extracted from George’s land behind the house – now you can see a nice pond there with water lilies. George was fortunate enough to find some recycled timber for the roof from the old garage that his neighbors were demolishing. He considered making a turf roof with wild flowers and herbs, but eventually he decided that a slate roof will be more practical because he will be able to collect rainwater from it and use it for watering his garden during warm summer days.
George buys his food at a local farmers’ market. All food that is sold there is organic and comes from farms within a 50 mile radius and George is happy to know that very little fuel is used to transport the food he purchases. Furthermore, he buys only raw, unpackaged food, which he brings home in his own bag. He doesn’t eat meat or fish. He knows that it takes a lot of land to feed the animals, and “after all” he tells his mom smiling “a cow is a human being too”. He drinks milk, however, and enjoys scrambled eggs on a Sunday morning. Well, not exactly all his food comes from the market. He buys bread and rolls in the nearby bakery. He tried baking bread on his own, but eventually he concluded that it takes too much energy to bake a single loaf of bread for him alone and that it would be more energy-efficient to buy it from the bakery. Nevertheless, it was his New Year’s resolution to buy local produce only. George is concerned about the amount of fuel that is used for transporting food and he decided to go radical on this one. It was tough at the beginning as he likes to drink tea and coffee, and he loves bananas. He substituted regular coffee with a barley and rye “coffee” and instead of tea he drinks mint or chamomile infusions. Unfortunately, bananas are gone from his table for good, but he discovered new vegetables such as yacon and salsify, so he doesn’t miss them that much.
George doesn’t have a car. He goes to work on a bicycle and if it’s too far for a bicycle he takes a bus or a train. Even when he is going abroad, which was three times in his life, he prefers to take a train rather than an airplane. His electric energy consumption is very low. In his home he installed a solar PV module for 140 Watts and batteries. That’s not much, but sufficient to power 3 lamps, a radio and a small fridge. George doesn’t have a TV, dishwasher or a computer. Some of his friends say that his lifestyle is a bit primitive, but he doesn’t mind. George has many books on his shelves, but when he discovered that many of them were available in a public library he stopped buying them. Once a month he buys his favorite magazine, but recently he even began reading newspapers in the library. His house contains very little furniture, just a simple, wooden table with chairs and a wardrobe. His sleeping mattress is laid directly on the clay floor. Inside his wardrobe there are only a few worn out shirts and new pair of trousers he got for Christmas. George has only two pairs of shoes and some rubber boots for working in the garden.
George doesn’t have a bath tub, only a shower. He has a smart shower head that reduces the usage of water by almost 60%. But George is most proud of his compost toilet that he designed himself. It fits nicely in the corner of his bathroom and is not smelly at all! The compost is used to fertilize a small elephant grass plantation that he shares with his friends. The elephant grass is cut every year and is used to heat their homes in winter. George works in a small shop that makes artisan cheese. They make cheddar, gouda and valdeon cheese wrapped in Sycamore leaves. All their produce is sold in two local shops. George doesn’t earn a lot of money, but it is enough for his modest needs. He pays his medical and dental care insurance and he can easily afford going to the movies every Saturday. He meets with his friends after work (he works only 6 hours a day), they play guitar and sing. He goes hiking in the summer and rides a bicycle along the river. George lives a happy and stress-free life.
What if We All Lived Like George?
Now, let’s take this a step further. Let’s imagine that all people in North America, Europe and Japan decided to reduce their levels of consumption and consume only as much as George. What happens? The massive destruction of the Amazon rainforest stopped. The market for soya and timber shrunk so much that it was no longer profitable to cut down vast areas of the forest. The existing soya farms were forced to compete for the remaining customers in China and India. In Canada and Scandinavia the number of trees cut down within a year has decreased significantly. In Democratic Republic of Congo, however, the rainforest is still cut down to make way for roads to mines sponsored by China which had no intention of abandoning its consumer lifestyle. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world the pressure on the natural forest was reduced enough to remove some birds and mammals from the red list of endangered species.
Positive change was quickly noted in the oceans. The population of fish species started to grow. Cod numbers increased in Baltic Sea and at the coasts of Canada. Also, with adoption of organic farming methods, water in the rivers became less polluted and more fish were able to live there. Life even came back to the Louisiana coast were agricultural runoff borne by the Mississippi River had created a 7000 square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The levels of air pollution in the cities has changed so much that the air is almost as clean as in the countryside. The level of carbon dioxide has decreased for the first time since the 19th century and scientist began to be more optimistic about human impact on climate change. Oil consumption was reduced so much that one barrel costs only 18 USD.
Now let’s go back to George. How is he?
George lost his job. The artisan cheese turned out to be too expensive for the new consumers and his boss decided to cut personnel. Everyday George queues in a long line waiting for warm soup and 2 slices of bread distributed by the government aid agency. He sold his bike, guitar and solar panels to buy food. He eats the soup and shares the bread with his dog. George’s friends lost their jobs too. His parents don’t have a job, his aunt lost her job. Actually almost everyone that George knows lost their jobs. He meets them all waiting in the long, long line to get warm soup.
How did it happen?
People stopped buying cars and decided to use public transport, so within one year all car factories were closed. Hundreds of thousands of workers were fired in Europe, USA and Japan. All car repair shops, tire making companies, car washing facilities and almost all gas stations were closed. Bicycle making companies recorded record profits but they couldn’t offer new jobs for the workers from the car factories, because they invested in new technologies and now all bicycle parts are made by machines.
Book publishers declared bankruptcy. With people reading books mostly in libraries they were not able to make enough profit. The quantity of books they were able to sell was too low. Along with publishers, bookstores were also forced to close their businesses. Ethical consumers understood that a million daily copies of a newspaper had a tremendous impact on forests. So, people quit buying them as well. As a consequence, journalists and editors lost their jobs. Printers lost their jobs. Producers of ink and printing equipment also lost their jobs. Producers of paper lost their jobs.
Hard times came for the construction industry. People are building small homes, which means that the producers of concrete, paints, windows, doors and roof tiles sell less products. With lower sales they were forced to cut down jobs. Millions of jobs for unqualified workers were no longer available. The same happened in the clothes industry. Cotton farmers lost their jobs, factory workers in China, Bangladesh and India lost their jobs as well. Small farmers growing coffee, tea and cocoa in the tropics were shocked when the importers told them that they cannot afford to buy their produce. Millions of them lost their source of income. The stock markets experienced a crisis that was never seen in their history. “The Great Depression Was a Joke” read the headlines. “Record Losses on Wall Street”, “Another Bank Goes Down”, “Sustainability is Killing Us”. But that was only in the first few weeks. Later on the newspapers went bankrupt. The repercussions were felt around the whole world. From Brazil and Argentina to Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. The credit crunch was now a pleasant memory of the past – a ‘crisis’ the bankers only wished to experience.
At a government level the situation was equally dramatic. The national budget’s revenue decreased by more than a half! There was not enough money for salaries for school teachers, for doctors, for nurses, for policemen, for the administration and for the army. Not only was construction of new roads stopped, but there was also not enough funds to maintain the existing roads.
At first workers went on strike and protested loudly in front of the president’s office. They burned tires and waved flags of their unions. But soon they understood. There was not enough money in the budget to pay them. The protests were in vain.
The heads of all EU countries, the president of USA and the prime minister of Japan appeared everyday on TV and in the radio. They begged their citizens to consume more. “Please” they said “please, you must go shopping or our countries will perish.”
Our Economic System Relies on Consumption
The point is that the economic model of Western societies relies on consumption. Excessive consumption provides economic development, it provides jobs. The more people consume, the more jobs are created. When people consume less, jobs are lost. There is a famous quote from the retail analyst Victor Lebow who helped to create a vision for the economic reform in the US after World War II:
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 satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.
Think about disposable Gillette razors. Would it be such a good business if you could sharpen the blade once a while, rather than buy the whole new product over and over again?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reduce our levels on consumption. We must. The natural resources on our planet are used at an unsustainable rate. Too many forests are cut down, too many fish caught, too many soils are degraded, too many species are endangered with extinction – and too many people are appearing on our planet every year. My point is that if we wish to provide a livelihood for every person on this planet, it won’t be enough to promote sustainable levels of consumption. Our current economic model was designed for excessive consumption. Consumption is its engine. Honestly speaking, greed is its engine. If we wish to have a sustainable future we must change the whole economic model, culture and introduce true democratic political systems – or else we will be waiting with George for food handouts.
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by Marcin Gerwin, Sopot, Poland. Marcin graduated with a Ph.D. in political studies, from the University of Gdansk, Poland, with his thesis: “The idea and practice of sustainable development in the context of global challenges”.