Consumption: The Root Cause of Climate Change

Published on
The Guardian/UK

Consumption: The Root Cause of Climate Change

The environmental and social crisis that threatens us requires deeper solutions than new technology alone can provide

Merrick Godhaven

Technology is part of the solution to climate change. But only part. Techno-fixes like some of those in the Guardian's Manchester Report simply cannot deliver the carbon cuts science demands of us without being accompanied by drastic reductions in our consumption. That means radical economic and social transformation. Merely swapping technologies fails to address the root causes of climate change.

We need to choose the solutions that are the cheapest, the swiftest, the most effective and least likely to incur dire side effects. On all counts, there's a simple answer – stop burning the stuff in the first place. Consume less.

There is a certain level of resources we need to survive, and beyond that there is a level we need in order to have lives that are comfortable and meaningful. It is far below what we presently consume. Americans consume twice as much oil as Europeans. Are they twice as happy? Are Europeans half as free?

Economic growth itself is not a measure of human well-being, it only measures things with an assessed monetary value. It values wants at the same level as needs and, while it purports to bring prosperity to the masses, its tendency to concentrate profit in fewer and fewer hands leaves billions without the necessities of a decent life.

Techno-fixation masks the incompatibility of solving climate change with unlimited economic growth. Even if energy consumption can be reduced for an activity, ongoing economic growth eats up the improvement and overall energy consumption still rises. We continue destructive consumption in the expectation that new miracle technologies will come and save us.

The hope of a future techno-fix feeds into the pass-it-forward, do-nothing-now culture typified by targets for 2050. Tough targets for 2050 are not tough at all, they are a decoy. Where are the techno-fix plans for the peak in global emissions by 2015 that the IPCC says we need?

Even within the limited sphere of technology, we have to separate the solutions from the primacy of profit. We need to choose what's the most effective, not the most lucrative. Investors will want the maximum return for their money, and so the benefits of any climate technologies will, in all likelihood, be sold as carbon credits to the polluter industries and nations. It would not be done in tandem with emissions cuts but instead of them, making it not a tool of mitigation but of exacerbation.

Climate change is not the only crisis currently facing humanity. Peak oil is likely to become a major issue within the coming decade. Competition for land and water, soil fertility depletion and collapse of fisheries are already posing increasing problems for food supply and survival in many parts of the world.

Technological solutions to climate change fail to address most of these issues. Yet even without climate change, this systemic environmental and social crisis threatens society, and requires deeper solutions than new technology alone can provide. Around a fifth of emissions come from deforestation, more than for all transport emissions combined. There is no technological fix for that. We simply need to consume less of the forest, that is to say, less meat, less agrofuel and less wood.

Our level of consumption is inequitable. Making it universal is simply impossible. The scientist Jared Diamond calculates that if the whole world were to have our level of consumption, it would be the equivalent of having 72 billion people on earth.

With ravenous economic growth still prized as the main objective of society by all political leaders the world over, that 72 billion would be just the beginning. At 3% annual growth, 25 years later it would be the equivalent of 150 billion people. A century later it would be over a trillion. Something's got to give. And indeed, it already is. It's time for us to call it a crisis and respond with the proportionate radical action that is needed.

We need profound change – not only government measures and targets but financial systems, the operation of corporations, and people's own expectations of progress and success. Building a new economic democracy based on meeting human needs equitably and sustainably is at least as big a challenge as climate change itself, but if human society is to succeed the two are inseparable.

Instead of asking how to continue to grow the economy while attempting to cut carbon, we should be asking why economic growth is seen as more important than survival.

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