|Consumed by consumption
By: John Gibbons
We live in extraordinary times. In the 10,000 years of recorded human history, there has never been an age like the modern era, and there was never a century remotely like the 20th Century.
For us as individuals, living day to day, change may not be easy to discern, as one year may vary only slightly from the previous one. To see just how much has really changed, and how quickly, you need to take a birds-eye view.
Between 1900 and 1999, humans changed the face of the earth forever. First, our population quadrupled, the world economy grew 14-fold, and industrial output shot up 40-fold. Our use of energy increased 13-fold in this same period.
Along the way, we chopped down one fifth of the world’s forests, wiped out 99.7% of the world’s blue whales, and caused tens of thousands of other species to go extinct. The side effect of all this activity included a five-fold increase in air pollution worldwide, while emissions of CO2 rose 17-fold and sulphur dioxide emissions went up 13-fold.
And finally, perhaps the most striking statistic of all: in the 20th Century, humans employed more energy than in all the previous 1,900 centuries of recorded history combined.
All these trends in energy use have actually accelerated since 2000, as globalisation has brought vast countries such as China fully into the world economy, and production of goods of every kind is now happening at its highest level in human history.
Surely this is good news, then? Doesn’t it mean jobs and more wealth for all? And we in Ireland, property market jitters aside, have never had it so good? The great number of us live lives of comfort and plenty that would have been utterly unimaginable to our grandparents’ generation.
Centrally heated homes, cars, foreign travel, leisure time and all manner of technical marvels are now within reach of most working people in Ireland. We’re better off by far than our parents’ generation, and what’s more, we’re pretty confident our children will enjoy at least the same level of material comfort as we now pretty much take for granted.
But is that a safe assumption? We as a species have prospered while the great majority of the other 20 million or so species with whom we share the planet have done less well. Our success has been at a huge cost to many other species, whose habitats have been either destroyed or degraded by human activity.
The world’s great forests are our richest sources of plant and animal life, but these are rapidly being converted into wastelands as global demand for timber and farmland leads to their destruction. Even where replaced by ‘farmed’ forestry, these new artificial forests only support a tiny fraction of the rich diversity of animal and plant life that exists in natural forests and jungle.
What, you might wonder, has the extinction of some worm you’ve never heard of or a rare frog, butterfly or bug got to do with us? Why should we care? To take a simple analogy: a Jumbo Jet is made up of over six million pieces. Some of its components, like the seats and storage lockers, are unimportant to the plane as a whole.
No doubt you could remove hundreds, maybe even thousands, of ‘bits’ from a Jumbo and it would remain airborne. But that assumes you know exactly which little bits are vital and which are not. Remove a certain number of tiny but crucial rivets, loosen a screw or two in the wrong location and the entire plane will fall from the sky. Our ecosystem is a lot like that, only vastly more complex and less well understood than an airplane.
The globalised system that is delivering the ‘miracle’ of prosperity, cheap travel and material comfort to many in the western world, including here in Ireland is doing so only because it is eating into finite natural resources, from forests to fisheries, minerals, metals, fossil fuels and scarce fresh water reserves. These are being depleted, quite literally, like there’s no tomorrow.
This is also creating nightmarish long-term environmental damage, from direct pollution to habitat loss to soil erosion and salinisation on land, as well as destruction of many of the world’s great rivers. At sea, coral reef destruction and increased levels of pollution, overfishing and acidification are taking a growing toll. Greenhouse gases such as CO2 are driving global warming, which itself it turning up the heat on our stressed planet and threatening to unhinge our weather systems.
All of these crises are as a direct result of 6.6 billion of us scrambling for scarce, finite resources. We in the western world do by far the lion’s share of the damage. On average, we consume resources and produce pollution at 32 times the rate of people in the poorer world. That means that even a country as small as Ireland is consuming and polluting at the rate of a less affluent country with around 130 million people.
Our love affair with our ‘western’ lifestyle and its SUVs and cheap Ryanair flights is propelling us along an unsustainable path. It’s as if we are paying today’s bills on the credit card, having cleaned out the savings account. This leaves us little in the kitty to cope with future shocks, yet our impact on the planet greatly increases the risk of very unpleasant climatic and ecological ‘surprises’.