William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC
Rampant consumerism and exponential population growth fly in the face of human sustainability. Are humans smart enough to manage their environment properly?
What’s the evidence for intelligent life on Earth? Would an intelligent species, one capable of rational thought and forward planning, persist in doing something from which it gains nothing and, in the process, undermine its own existence?
Consider this. Techno-industrial society has witnessed 200 years of spectacular growth–the population quadrupled to six billion and industrial output by fortyfold in the 20th century alone.
This is an economy on steroids! There is no doubt that humanity has gained enormously from the boom–millions of people live more materially abundant and physically secure lives than even royalty could have imagined a few centuries ago.
Growth Creates Its Own Problems
First, it’s all happening on a finite planet, and the burgeoning human enterprise is destroying the very ecosystems that sustain it. Fisheries are collapsing, biodiversity loss is accelerating, soils are blowing or washing away, marine dead-zones are expanding, and accelerating climate change threatens to amplify the lot. We have entered a period of uneconomic growth, when costs exceed benefits–it will eventually impoverish us all. System collapse is possible.
Second, the gains from growth have not been equitably distributed. The richest fifth of humanity take home 75 percent of the world’s income while the poorest 20 percent scratch by on 1.5 percent. Two and a half billion people survive on less than $2 a day, almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night, and another two billion are otherwise malnourished.
Third, most of the current income growth goes to the already wealthy, despite evidence that rich countries have long passed the point where rising incomes contribute to either population health or individual well-being. Between 1957 and 1993, US real per capita income more than doubled to $16,000, but it didn’t make people any happier.
Are We Happier?
In a 1957 survey by National Opinion Research Center, 35 percent of respondents claimed to be “very happy.” With twice the income, 32 percent said the same in 1993. Certainly, to judge by “soaring rates of depression, a quintupled rate of reported violent crime since 1960, a doubled divorce rate, a slight decline in marital happiness among the marital survivors, and a tripled teen suicide rate, Americans are richer, and no happier,” says David Meyers in a Psychological Science article.
Overworked and competitively driven, high-income consumers have forgotten simple pleasures and allowed their supportive relationships–the things that really make the spirit soar–to wither in near-ritualistic pursuit of the “latest thing” at Lululemon or the Gap.
“Up and down the line, the things people used to do for and with one another turn into things they have to buy,” observed a 1995 Atlantic Monthly article.
At What Cost?
Meanwhile, the chronically impoverished, those who would actually benefit substantially from greater incomes and more consumption, are actually losing ground. In fact, this is a lose-lose-lose situation. Consumerism is destroying the planet; things cannot fill the void so the rich depend on antidepressants; and the poor barely struggle on, cold and hungry in the dark.
We have long known that we would soon have to turn things around. By 1993 the global Business Council on Sustainable Development had already recognized that “industrialised world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90 percent will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means.”
If high-income countries abandoned the rat race and gave up growth, the earth could repair itself; the rich would gain time and freedom to repair their families and personal lives; and the poor would gain the ecological space to grow toward sufficiency. This is win-win-win–and we even have the technology and ingenuity to pull it off.
But there’s a final problem. The whole world is now addicted to economic growth, and addiction, like passion, generally trumps reason. Result? While we know what we need to do for sustainability, we do not do it.
A dispassionate observer from another universe would find little evidence that intelligence plays large in human destiny. There is a reason for this (and a possible way out), but that’s another story.