1.4 The Story of Consumption

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Imagine going to a doctor with a persistent mild, 1 degree C fever…

And a coconut-sized growth by the side of your head.

As you are waiting for the doctor to examine you, you sense a lot of nervousness in the office. You overhear the nurse furtively whispering to the doctor, “Don’t mention the “C” word!” Then the doctor examines you and diagnoses that the growth is the cause of the fever. And that the fever is going to get worse! The best he can do is to limit your fever to 2 degrees C and maintain your health precariously in that advanced state of disrepair.

Would you then plead with the doctor to try and limit your fever to 1.5 degrees C and maintain it at that level?

Or would you ask him about “the C word,” that ominous, coconut-sized growth by the side of your head, which he told you was the cause of the fever?

But when you ask him about the growth, imagine the doctor replies,

“I will make sure that the growth doubles in size as quickly as possible. You will soon look like you have three heads! But your fever will be limited to less than 2 degrees C”.

Wouldn’t you run away from such a doctor to seek a second opinion?

Now imagine that you have the same experience with the second doctor!

And a third!

You now feel as if the whole medical profession has gone berserk!

You then dig through the medical literature to understand the doctor’s diagnosis about your condition. To discover that the growth can be reversed if you make some significant lifestyle changes. But the doctors didn’t tell you that, because they were afraid that they would get their heads chopped off!

You see, it is impossible to get accurate medical advice when you are the Red Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland!

Then you wake up.

And discover to your horror that the exact same scenario is being played out in the global environmental arena! Since the Rio summit, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification have been abysmal failures, mainly because biodiversity loss and desertification don’t affect the global North much. Most of the desertification and biodiversity loss is now happening in the global South, far away from the affluent consumers who are mainly responsible for it. Though climate change does affect the global North, even the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has become an exercise in public relations as opposed to action. At the UN climate change conference, the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP-21), which concluded in December 2015 in Paris, the official story portrayed the Paris accord as a resounding success[27]. The nations of the world had voluntarily agreed to limit global warming increase to 2 degrees C! As a stretch goal, and at the behest of the island nations of the world who fear being drowned in the rising seas, the nations of the world also agreed to do their best to limit global warming increase to 1.5 degrees C!

Applause, applause!

But of course, it was just Kabuki theater. The political leaders of the world see no option but to keep the current fossil fuel drenched socioeconomic system chugging along until it collapses on its own. As Doug Carmichael puts it[28],

“It is not irrational to stay in a leaky canoe if there is no other… It is better to keep going for another fifteen or twenty years and then collapse than to try to change it now and collapse now.”

Indeed, the COP-21 negotiators had tacitly agreed not to mention the “C” word: Consumption. Four items were specifically off the table during the negotiations: animal agriculture, biofuels, aviation and shipping. In every future greenhouse gas emissions scenario that they considered, the negotiators also aimed to double the size of the global economy by the year 2100. Even though the global economy is currently estimated to be 60% larger than what the planet can support[29]!

Consumption was a taboo topic at the UN conference, specifically, the consumption of animal products. In fact, it was difficult to get good plant-based foods at the COP-21 venue in Paris, even though UN reports have repeatedly highlighted the adverse climate impacts of animal-based foods[30]. The negotiators themselves were a privileged bunch. There were hardly any women among them from all the 195 countries and by an insider’s account, there was just one vegetarian among the whole lot.  

The British climate scientist, Dr. Kevin Anderson of Cambridge University, noted the implicit savagery underlying the Paris accord, as he envisioned rich people in the global North muddling through and coping with the climate crisis as it unfolds, while the poor people in the global South were expected to die off[31]. He opined that nations in the global South could not possibly muster the resources to build sea walls and other strategies to improve the resilience of their societies in the face of rapid climate change, while the global North could afford to do so.

Personally, I think that Dr. Anderson has it backwards. He’s assuming that the socioeconomic system will remain stable even as mass die-offs occur in the human population. Besides, it isn’t just sea level rise that the nations of the world have to guard against with respect to climate change, but widespread disruptions in weather, seasons and rainfall patterns. In fact, the poor are resilient, live in strong communities and know how to grow their own food and can largely muddle through if climate change continues unchecked and the socioeconomic system collapses. It is the rich who are more vulnerable since they are isolated and dependent on external, corporate sources for their food, fuel and pharmaceutical intake. In exchange, the rich mainly possess pieces of paper with pictures of dead luminaries on them. Corporations and capitalism in industrial societies as organized today would be difficult to maintain in such unpredictable environments.

The eminent climate scientist, Dr. Jim Hansen, made headlines at COP-21 when he said the idea that the world is making good progress on climate change is “baloney”[32]. In his view, it is possible to solve climate change but the nations of the world were not advocating a solution in the Paris accord. Instead, he recommended adopting a carbon “fee and dividend” scheme as the more appropriate response to climate change. In this scheme, a progressively increasing fee is collected at the source for all carbon-based fuels and the entire fee is distributed as dividend to all citizens. He estimated that the proposed carbon fee and dividend approach would grow the world economy even faster than the doubling that the Paris accord would accomplish by 2100!

Yes, dear readers, the cancer would grow even faster!

But we, the public, are largely playing the role of the Red Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland. We are complicit in this charade. No political leader of ours would dare to reduce economic growth without being summarily dismissed, anywhere in the world:

“Off with his head!”

No corporate CEO would dare to reduce profit growth without being summarily dismissed by the shareholders and the board:

“Off with his head!”

No hedge fund manager would dare to reduce returns without being sacked by his billionaire investors.

“Off with his head!”

No climate scientist working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would dare to suggest that solving climate change might require reducing economic growth.

“Off with his head!”

It is fear that drives the current system, specifically the fear of the loss of the known, fear of the loss of stability of the socioeconomic system that we are ensconced in. Everyone is understandably paralyzed by the fear that they might topple the “leaky canoe” that they are precariously perched on. Economic growth is so central to our current way of organizing society that we are desperately trying to preserve it.

Growth is systemic. We have coded the quest for growth in the DNA of our currency structures so that the world’s financial system will collapse without economic growth, or at least, the illusion of economic growth.

To foster that economic growth, we promote unnecessary, mindless consumption. Through advertising that pays for our “free” Internet, our “free” television programming, our “free” social media and our “free” newspapers. Consumption is the organizing value of our socioeconomic system as the average American is bombarded with 3500 advertisements each day.

Consumption is systemic.

To promote consumption, we encourage separation and isolation. Through glorifying the lifestyle choices of the loneliest groups of people, billionaires and celebrities, who are supposedly selected through fair market competition, the organizing principle of our socioeconomic system.

Separation is systemic.

At the heart of it is the story of separation from Creation, our Spiritual crisis. This is at the root of our suffering.

[27] The popular narrative is reflected in this New York Times opinion piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/paris-climate-accord-is-a-big-big-deal.html

[28] This quote is taken from an article on the Stanford MAHB web site: http://stanford.io/1Tr704i

[29] Based on the Global Footprint Network’s assessment that the Earth Overshoot Day is August 8, 2016. This means that 1.6 Earths are needed to support human demand today. http://www.overshootday.org/

[30] Based on a Production and Materials report from the UNEP’s International Panel on Sustainable Resource Management. Please see article and references cited therein: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet

[31] Dr. Kevin Anderson stated this in a discussion taped during COP-21 in Paris: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svlU6p0gHgo

[32] This characterization is cited in http://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2015/12/jim-hansen-pans-cop21-baloney/