Paul Gillespie: The west must wean itself off unsustainable growth

If everyone was to live like the average US citizen we would need five planets

Global Footprint Network: calculates how many planets we would need to sustain the lifestyles of different countries, groups and individuals

Global Footprint Network: calculates how many planets we would need to sustain the lifestyles of different countries, groups and individuals

 

“Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist” – David Attenborough.

On August 2nd the Earth reached its sustainability overshoot date for 2017. This indicator measures how through over-fishing, over-harvesting forests, over-grazing land and mostly by carbon releases we have used more than the planet can renew in a single year. The date was September 17th in 2000.

The indicator is produced by the Global Footprint Network which calculates how many planets we would need to sustain the lifestyles of different countries, groups and individuals. This year we would need 1.7 planets and they reckon, on present trends, two would be needed by 2030. If everyone was to live like the average US citizen we would need five planets, like Ireland four, but like Chad, Afghanistan or Cambodia less than one. If all countries were to grow to the point of consuming as much as the wealthiest we would need 3.4 Earths to sustain us.

Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the estimated amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year) by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s estimated demand for that year). This ratio is multiplied by 365 to get the date when Earth Overshoot Day is reached. Sustainability they define as the condition in which all human beings can lead fulfilling lives without degrading the planet.

Planetary ecology

This is a graphic and compelling way to document and publicise the dangerous pressures on planetary ecology arising from present trends. Central to them is the pursuit of endless economic growth and insatiable consumption. There is a contradiction between these imperatives and sustainability since we only have one planet available.

How then can the contradiction be resolved? A radical and original approach to these questions is offered by Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics in his recent book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions. He uses the footprint analyses to illustrate not only the urgent need to act but the grossly unequal impact of these trends, their deep historical roots and how they can be effectively tackled. That can only be done if the capitalist economics which makes such growth and consumption an inescapable part of our lives is challenged and superseded.

Along the way he notes that in the last century we have lost 50 per cent of the world’s forests, up to 80 per cent of fish stocks and have seen 40 per cent of soil depleted by chemicals and over-cultivation. He challenges United Nations figures and claims rates of wealth rises and reductions of poverty are grossly exaggerated if environmental and social impacts are included in gross domestic product and if real living costs are also factored in.

That shows the world is more unequal than normally assumed, a trend reinforced by neoliberal economics from the 1980s. Eight individuals now control more wealth than the poorest half of humanity. Sixty per cent of our species (4.3 billion people) lives on less than five dollars a day, his definition of poverty compared to the UN figures of one quarter that amount yielding an improving one billion people.

The historical roots of these inequalities come from the expansion and imperial conquests associated with early European and later American capitalism from the 16th century. That reversed Indian and Chinese domination of world living standards and life expectancy up to the early 1800s. In the last century a skilful management of decolonisation alongside strategic interventions against radical reformist regimes like those in Iran, Ghana, Egypt and Chile from the 1950s to the 1970s ensured continuing Western control of world rules and power.

Bracing alternative

This is a well-argued and bracing alternative account of world development and sustainability. It adopts Edward Said’s notion of “contrapuntal thinking” to link the metropolitan core to the post-colonial periphery in thinking about power, political priorities and agency. Hickel supports degrowth strategies for the richest societies and shows there are sustainable ways to find wellbeing while abandoning unsustainable growth and consumption imperatives.

Shorter working weeks, universal basic incomes, a global minimum wage and Tobin taxes on financial transactions could wean populations off them. This would not be another round of austerity but a step towards a more equal world, capable of overcoming the scarcity assumptions driving current economic orthodoxy and the capitalist power structures and legal dynamics built into them. They threaten to destroy the planet if not challenged and stopped soon.

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