As our planets human population continues to push past the 8 billion mark it is becoming more obvious that we cannot continue our current lifestyles whilst simultaneously stopping our planets destruction. Environmental degradation is a major impact of our capitalist driven consumerist world. All the ‘stuff’ we consume – from food to technology- is responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50-80% of total land, material and water use. Economic growth under the capitalist model is destroying our planet, there is no way of greening it – we need a new system.
The rise of capitalism has produced economic growth across the world, unfortunately with economic growth comes greed. This greed is what drives our planets destruction. In order for the capitalist system to work, constant growth is needed. That means the system and those involved (everyone) must desire growth, in other words the system is greedy for more. More money to make more things, to make more money, to make more things etc. The system makes every individual want more.
The problem is pursuing more. This has led to mass over consumption propagated to feed economic growth. Currently on the one planet known to harbour life, a four-planet lifestyle is underway for many of its human inhabitants. Regardless of what it is we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the earths living systems. We are sucked into a cycle of compulsion followed by consumption, followed by the periodic detoxing of ourselves or our homes, like Romans making themselves sick after eating, so that we can cram more in.
Continued economic growth depends on continued disposal. If we simply bought all the things we needed, then we should no longer need to buy anything else. Instead we are pushed into buying things we don’t really need. Unless we rapidly junk the goods we buy, the system fails. We always need the latest model or the latest diet fad. The growth economy and the throwaway society cannot be separated and environmental destruction is a necessary element of such system.
Regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the earths living systems. With every generation the baseline of normal consumption shifts. As more ‘stuff’ becomes available, we feel the need to obtain such ‘stuff’. Our grandparents think it is ridiculous to buy bottled water, where tap water is clean and abundant. Yet worldwide we use a million plastic bottles a minute just because we can. Every Friday is now a black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. We continue to buy portable watermelon coolers, selfie sticks and shoes for dogs just because we can.
Furthermore, our apparent need to consume has resulted in startling anomalies across the globe. As the capitalist idealism makes people want to live a luxurious life we feel the need to buy completely unnecessary items. Worldwatch reports that worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics total US $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Expenditures on pet food in the US and Europe total $17 billion a year, the cost of immunising every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion. The system has clouded our vision, in order to feed the system we must consume, world hunger and poverty don’t affect the pockets of those in charge, only our consumption can fill them.
As the consumers, we are confused and feel almost powerless. Corporate powers have gone to such lengths to promote a system that feeds their power. They have been so successful that we are forced to feel this way that, we no longer bother to make a change. Four-fifths of the environmental impact of consumerism comes not from direct behaviours like driving cars or taking long showers, but rather from sources further down our products supply chains. We are so confused of how our actions effect the planet, we just listen to what we are told to do.
The system wants to make everyone want everything. But how can that work? This system cannot continue to grow down a linear path on a planet that will never grow. The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But we are already pushing the physical and biological limits of the planet. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met, yet the capitalist train continues to run worldwide, encouraging consumerism and therefore growth, and inevitably destruction.
Moving on, a global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. As world economies grow, consumption rises and destruction worsens. Fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind is one thing. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing. How has the world’s human population been tricked into thinking we are doing things the right way?
Those who justify the system argue economic growth is essential for the relief of poverty and harsh living conditions. But a paper in the World Economic Review finds that the poorest 60% of the world’s people receive only 5% of the additional income generated by rising GDP. With this model it will take 200 years to ensure that everyone receives $5 a day. The system is not a formula to relive poverty or create world harmony, it is one to continue to fill the pockets of those who run it, whilst simultaneously destroying the planet of which we all rely on. Capitalism is leading to increasing inequality and creating social tensions that both make it even harder to protect the planet and change the system.
Unfortunately, in its current state, economic growth cannot comply with a flourishing environment. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of our good intentions. The world’s richest 1% produce around 175 times as much carbon as the poorest 10%. So in a world where everyone is supposed to aspire to high incomes, can we avoid destroying our planet?
Most people reading this article come from a consumer driven, economically developed nation. We are part of the problem, caught in the wheel of capitalism and greed. We must be the ones to take responsibility for our personal choices that we make in our everyday lives. However, can a better form of consumerism really save the planet if all we do is switch what we buy? Although reducing what we consume will help, the changes that need to be made must be structural.
As poorer countries develop, the planet cannot afford for everyone to adopt the lifestyles we currently indulge ourselves in that have been moulded by a political system captured by commercial interests and an economic system that seeks endless growth. We must live a one-planet lifestyle and this means not only reducing our individual impact but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. Our behaviour within the system can only somewhat change the outcomes of the system. It is the system that needs to change.
The capitalist system would like us to think that we can buy or innovate our way out of a process that could, through a combination of heat stress, aridity, sea level rise and crop failure, render large parts of our planet hostile to human life. We can stop consuming unnecessary products but perhaps it is time we look for a different system, we can individually promote change using our votes and our voices. We need to build a world in which growth is unnecessary, a world of private sufficiency and public luxury. And we must do it before catastrophe forces our hand.