Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Is the party over? Sustainable hopes

Last night a friend and I went to a FREE lecture at Gresham College in Holborn Circus, London. If you’ve not been to Gresham, you should, it is wonderful. They give free at least 3 lectures on all sorts of different subjects every week all year round! The college has existed for 400 years and judging by the bursting beyond capacity turn out last night is very popular!

The lecture we were attending was delivered by a Gresham regular, Michael Mainelli and served as a useful exploration of what the sustainability dream means for economists and those interested in commerce. For a hardened environmental student like me, the lecture was pretty basic, but from an environmental education perspective it was interesting to see how the issues were being presented to an intelligent lay audience. The lecture focused on Ehrlich and Commoner’s I-PAT equation. The terms of the I-PAT are: I (environmental impact), P (Population), A (affluence) and T (technology). It looks like this: I = P x A x T and is wonderfully simple. It asserts that as population and affluence grow the environment will degrade.
Mainelli argued that many environmentalists do not give adequate consideration to the first factor, population. Population growth is a big white elephant that we can not afford to ignore. The UN currently estimate that the world population will be 9.2 billion by 2075. Population growth, however, is dependent on fertility rates. At present the average number of children a woman gives birth to is 2.3. Fertility rates are gradually falling in affluent countries, if they were to fall to around 1.8, the global population would fall to around 2.3 billion by the far off year of 2300. However, if the rate rose slightly to 2.4, we would be looking at population in 2300 of 36.4 billion!

As environmentalists, we can’t ignore population growth, but I would argue given the consumerist, materialist, waste producing example being set by affluent countries, it is far more important to consider how the population behaves. If the growing population, or even a stable population, all aim to behave like us Brits or our trans-Atlantic cousins we will be environmentally doomed. Anyone who has compared the ecological footprint of an affluent nation like ours with a developing nation can understand why this is! If the affluent countries gradually ceased to export materialist values, the environmental damage resulting from excessive conspicuous consumption would lessen in those countries and the example set to developing countries would lessen their materialist desires and therefore environmental impact. Well possibly! This of course is a dramatically difficult thing to do and depends hugely on the answering of the question that John Naish, in his book ‘Enough’ describes as the other white elephant in the eco living room:

If not a consumer economy then what?!

The amount of people asking this question within the environmental world, let alone the business and political world is staggeringly low, it is however the only question that is really worth asking! We can’t rely on technology to save us, because under a consumer capitalist framework technology as Mainelli pointed out is good and bad. Strides are being made with carbon capture and strorage, whether these strides are fast enough to prevent a climate catastrophe is very questionable. They won’t stop business people designing, marketing and manufacturing all the trappings of consumer society, in fact CCS may give them an excuse to carry on as normal. But where are all the raw materials going to come from, we can’t recycle forever, we need to deal with the waste problem by producing less waste!

I’m glad so many people turned up at Gresham college last night (my friend and I were in the overflow basement room watching on the big screen, by the start of the lecture had standing room only). The room was buzzing with intelligent folk on their way home from a busy day in the City. Mainelli didn’t overtly ask the big question of what lies beyond a consumer economy, but this is the question I hope a few of them went away musing over. The more people who ask this question, the more likely we are to find a solution to it, it is the question that lies at the heart of sustainability. As for the other white elephant, the planning of a new economic system would certainly be made easier if we had a stable or decreasing global population. Use a condom!
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1 comment:

s_j_champion said...

jeez - i thought i was th eonly one - ive been grappling with the question "what else other than a consumer society", or a version of it, for years. I have grown frustrated at the fact Ive found no discourse about it (to be fair I probably haven't looked hard enough)... So frustated infact I have almost reached the conclusion the only way to avoid The End is to wipe out half the worlds population in some terryfying Dooms Day-esque event and return to the technology of the stone age... but I'm sure there's another way. Ill be buying a copy of "Enough" but Amazon only have one copy at $100...