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The environmental crisis - and the entwined social and economic crises.

Is there a crisis?
This is worth answering, as some commentators seem to think everything is just rosy.

Today, 60% of our eco system services are degrading. We have exceeded 3 ‘planetary limits’ – extinction, climate change and nitrate pollution. The Earth’s ecological footprint is more than 1.5 Earths and the Living Planet Index has dropped by 52%.
Extinction is at least 1000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record and Peter Raven et al (2011) estimate that without change by 2100 two thirds of life may be extinct.
TWO THIRDS OF LIFE EXTINCT BY 2100 due to our actions. As Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech observes ‘The scale of what we are doing, the sheer moral evil, is almost unimaginable’.
So ‘yes’, the facts are in – we do indeed have a major problem. Society’s interaction with the world that supports it is fundamentally unsustainable. A responsible approach would be to ask ‘why?’ and ‘what can we do?
What are the key drivers of unsustainability? I discuss here the key ‘elephants in the room’ that few seem to want to see.


There are too many people on Earth – consuming at too high a level. Given that we know we have exceeded ecological limits, it would seem obvious that population increase is a driver for environmental degradation. However, ‘overpopulation’ is still commonly ignored and even angrily denied. Such a denial remains a key barrier to reaching sustainability.


As economist Paul Ekins has noted, a sustainable ‘consumer’ society is actually a contradiction in terms. Since 1960, population has grown by a factor of 2.2 while consumption has gone up sixfold. Consumer expenditure per person has almost tripled. If the entire world were to adopt American (or Australian) lifestyles, we would need at least 4 more planets to supply them. This can’t happen, hence why we are rapidly exceeding the Earth’s limits.
Today, ‘eco-efficiency’ and the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ are often the sustainability strategies promoted by business. However, these are not answers if they ignore the fundamental problem of urging people to consume way beyond their needs. A key driver is the $500 billion spent yearly on advertising to urge us to over-consume. Banker Pavan Sukhdev points the ‘finger of blame’ at the corporate world, which must be brought to the table as ‘planetary stewards’ rather than ‘free-riding their way to global resource depletion’.

The Endless Growth Myth – The Magic Pudding

If you ask most people: ‘On a finite planet, can we continue to grow physically forever?’ they will mostly say: ‘Of course you can’t!’. Why then do we as a society persist in doing this? Overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change also are really symptoms of a general malaise – the ‘endless growth myth’. Many environmental scientists and scholars believe that the fixation on growth and increasing consumption is precisely why we have an environmental crisis.
Norman Lindsay wrote the Australian children’s classic The Magic Pudding about a pudding that could never be fully eaten. This is the stuff of playful fantasy, yet it is also the mantra of neoliberalism and most governments and businesses around the world. They seek always to ‘bake a bigger cake’, rather than share the cake we have more equitably. Those who question this are castigated in the media and much of academia. Yet the premise of endless growth on a finite planet is actually absurd and impossible.


Of course, some will deny that there is or ever has been any environmental crisis. Humanity could arguably be called Homo denialensis not Homo sapiens, for we are very good at denial. As Naomi Oreskes of Harvard uni illustrates in Merchants of Doubt, denial often comes from an ideological basis. For example, the denying of climate science as it may lead to further regulation of ‘the market’ deemed sacred by neoliberals. We are sadly very good at fooling ourselves and ignoring the implications of what we (en masse) do. However, the denial dam can be broken, and this is a requirement for sustainability.


Sustainability has to first and foremost mean solving the environmental crisis, and the entwined social and economic crises. The key task is to break the denial dam and accept reality. We have problems, we need to accept and solve them.
Sound easy? Well of course it isn’t, but it is still possible and so very necessary.
It means accepting that endless physical growth is impossible. That means an endless growth economy cannot be sustainable. We need what economist Herman Daly calls a ‘steady state’ economy, where population is stable and sustainable, while throughput of resources is minimised. We thus need to stabilise and then reduce population, we need to reverse overconsumption, control advertising, and re-learn the ‘thriftiness’ our grandparents understood. We have to accept that sustainability is the key ethical issue, both in regard to what we owe future generations, and also what we owe the rest of life we share this wondrous planet with. We need to drop our narrow anthropocentric modernist worldview for an ‘eco-centric’ worldview and what Holmes Rolston of Colorado State Uni calls an ‘Earth ethics’.
There are solutions to all of our environmental problems that time does not permit me to cover here (the book does!). There is also great urgency involved. The key is abandoning denial and accepting we have created major problems we must now solve. Sustainability – to be meaningful – must now become what theologian Thomas Berry has called the ‘Great Work’ of repairing the Earth. What task could be as challenging – but also as necessary, ethical and exciting?


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"As we sow so shall we reap"

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