Essay

The costs of consumption

Dispatches from a planet in decline

LAST OCTOBER, THE World Wildlife Fund for Nature released the 2018 Living Planet Report. Published biennially since 1998, the report offers a comprehensive overview of ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide.

As it has for the past decade or so, the report leads with a series of statistics that ram home the scale of the destruction humans are wreaking upon the planet. Since 1970, vertebrate animal populations have declined by an average of 60 per cent. These declines are most pronounced in tropical regions, in particular South and Central America, where populations have declined by a staggering 89 per cent, and India and the Asia-Pacific region (which includes Australia), where populations have declined by 64 per cent, but sub-Saharan Africa has also seen decline of 56 per cent. North Africa, Europe and North Asia fared better, with declines of 31 per cent, as did North America, where the decline was 23 per cent. Likewise different environments showed different levels of decline; hardest hit were freshwater environments, which showed average population declines of 83 per cent.

These figures would not have been a shock to anybody with an interest in the natural world or the environment. Over recent years, study after study has reached similar conclusions. In May 2018, scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the California Institute of Technology found that, across the course of human history, humans have wiped out 83 per cent of all wild animals, and half of all plants. The same study also calculated the biomass of life on Earth and found that only 4 per cent of mammals are wild animals – the remainder being humans and livestock – and that the biomass of chickens alone exceeds the biomass of every wild bird on Earth. In the oceans, studies suggest large species such as whales, sharks, seals, rays and turtles have declined by three quarters, with declines in some species exceeding 99 per cent, and a recent study by Australian scientists at the University of Tasmania and the University of Technology Sydney suggested almost a third of large fish had disappeared from Australian waters in the past decade alone. Perhaps most ominously, several recent studies have suggested precipitous declines in insect populations in the UK, Germany, Puerto Rico and other places around the world.

Yet last year’s Living Planet Report seemed to carry a special weight. Coming only a few weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees – a document that outlined, in the starkest possible terms, how little time we have left to act if we are to prevent catastrophic global warming – it felt like a confirmation of the special report’s sense of urgency. Nowhere was this more apparent than in its opening pages, which spoke not of risks in the future, but of the choices we face now, and emphasised ignoring its findings would have disastrous consequences not just for animals and the environment, but for human society.

 

IN THE HOURS after the report’s release, many media outlets carried stories about its findings, occasionally accompanied by impassioned columns by writers and activists, and for a day or two the corner of the social media universe I inhabit was lit up by retweets, often accompanied by the obligatory sad-face and weeping emojis. But by week’s end they were mostly gone, edged out by the ongoing convulsions in the United States and, here in Australia, the Morrison government’s daily thought bubbles.

In a way this is not surprising. The economics and technology of contemporary media drive a focus on the immediate, a fixation on the news not just of the day, or the hour, but the nanosecond. As consumers we crave the quick-twitch sugar hit of Twitter, the satisfactions of instant outrage about the Trump administration’s latest enormity. Constantly distracted by the dazzle of the next thing we struggle to hold onto the bigger picture, to assimilate information that cannot be digested in a matter of moments. In such a context the urgent inevitably crowds out the important. Or, to put it another way, the personal trumps the planetary.

But our lack of desire to engage with the implications of the report and the accelerating deluge of studies demonstrating similar declines runs deeper as well. The sheer scale of the problem makes it difficult to think about. The problems are so huge that it is easier to push them to one side than to actually engage with them – and when we do attempt to engage, they seem so insuperable we tend to lapse into despair.

It’s possible the sheer constancy of the bad news is itself part of the problem. As the American cultural theorist Sianne Ngai argues in Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2007), the transformation of our culture over the past few decades has generated new forms of aesthetic response, chief among them what she terms the ‘stuplime’. Posited as a postmodern counterpart to the Kantian sublime, the stuplime refers not to the transcendent feelings of awe induced by immense and powerful objects and phenomena, but to experiences in which astonishment is ‘paradoxically united with boredom’, ‘bringing together…sharp, sudden excitation and prolonged desensitisation, exhaustion, or fatigue’.

Many of us will recognise the feeling she describes. And when Ngai writes of the stuplime as ‘a series of fatigues or minor exhaustions, rather than a single, major blow to the imagination’ she might just as easily be describing our reaction to the environmental crisis that surrounds us. It’s not that we’re unaware of it; it’s that we’re too aware of it, its omnipresence and the barrage of bad news making it difficult to think about. In contrast to the sublime, where feelings of wonder and transcendence liberate and elevate us, the stuplime leaves us enervated, demobilised, stunned into inaction and avoidance (I suspect it’s not coincidental that this description might also apply to our experience of the internet and social media technologies that shape our apprehension and interaction with the world).

This disengagement is amplified by the fact that, for many of us, the findings of the Living Planet Report are essentially abstract. In developed countries the bulk of the population lives in cities, places in which the natural world is treated as a problem, a thing to be managed and held at bay. Our experience of animals is mostly confined to our companion animals and the handful of species that survive in urban environments, and while we may be aware that the places where we have contact with the natural world – the beach, the bush – are changing, the incremental nature of that change makes it difficult to be sure. As creatures disappear, we forget them, as baselines shift we adjust, and the world as it was is lost.

Yet there is another explanation as well, and it is one that is implicit in the report’s structure. We – and by that loaded term ‘we’ I mean those of us who enjoy the benefits of life in rich, First-World countries – do not care about the problem because we cannot. For as the report makes clear, the collapse in animal populations is being driven by an exponential increase in human consumption.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the two pages of graphs plotting population, GDP, energy and water use, carbon dioxide, global temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, tropical forest loss and a range of other indicators of social progress and ecological health. In all of them, the same pattern is repeated. Up until 1950 or so they rise slowly, then tick upward, growing steeper until about 1970, when they begin to ascend almost vertically.

These graphs illustrate two things. The first is the extraordinary rapidity of the process scientists and economists call the ‘Great Acceleration’. In just over two generations, real global GDP has grown fivefold, energy use has tripled, and the number of motor vehicles has grown sevenfold. On almost every measure, living standards are better than they were half a century ago. Although the gulf between the rich and poor has grown, fewer people live in poverty, life expectancies have risen around the world, child mortality has fallen, education levels are rising and diseases such as smallpox, polio, mumps, measles and rubella have been eradicated or are close to being eradicated.

As the report reminds us, these are things we should celebrate. But the graphs also starkly illustrate the effect of human consumption on Earth’s natural systems. Increased demand for land, energy and water is driving massive degradation of the systems we depend upon for our survival. Destruction of forests and other habitats for cities and farms and mining is destroying the habitats of animals; diversion of rivers for energy and irrigation is disrupting water supplies and degrading freshwater ecosystems; rising temperatures and acidifying waters are killing coral reefs, and overfishing is emptying the oceans. As the Canadian marine biologist Ransom Myers quipped when asked where all the fish have gone: it’s not a mystery; ‘we ate them’.

It would be easy to blame overpopulation for this rise in consumption. But it would be wrong. For while population growth has played a part, the rise in GDP and energy use far outstrips the rise in population. In fact it is humanity’s booming middle classes – us in other words – who are the problem. The ecological footprint of an average Australian or American is three times that of a Costa Rican, and almost eight or nine times that of the average Indian or African. It is also, significantly, double that of many Europeans. As the old saying goes, the fish rots from the head.

Little wonder then, that we do not wish to dwell upon the Living Planet Report’s implications. For it demands we recognise the real problem is not the actions of poor farmers in Central America, or fishermen in West Africa or the employees of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, but the insatiable consumption of the world’s wealthy. It demands we make a connection between our own actions and the devastating declines laid out in the report’s pages. And it lays bare our complacency in the face of catastrophe.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Australia. As a nation, we already boast the world’s worst record when it comes to extinction. One in three mammal extinctions over the past 400 years have taken place in Australia, and since the arrival of Europeans just over 200 years ago, at least thirty species of mammals and twenty-four species of birds have been wiped out. The single largest contributor to these declines is habitat loss, yet in recent years governments in Queensland and New South Wales have loosened restrictions on land clearing, setting off a frenzy of clearing that has seen eastern Australia identified as a global deforestation hotspot alongside the Amazon, the Mekong and Borneo. In 2015–16, 395,000 hectares of land was cleared in Queensland, an increase of 50 per cent on the 261,000 hectares that were cleared in 2012–13, and the equivalent of almost 1,100 rugby fields a day. Although the Palaszczuk government has recently pushed through new legislation aimed at reducing rates of clearing in Queensland, rates of clearing in NSW remain shockingly high, with a recent report by the WWF estimating at least ten million animals die in the state every year as a result of land clearing.

 

AS THE EFFECTS of climate change become increasingly apparent, it is no longer possible to pretend the health of the planet and our own survival are unconnected. Last year saw a summer of record heat in the Northern Hemisphere, historic drought in eastern Australia, hurricanes in the Atlantic, melting glaciers in the Antarctic – all of which are signs of a planet in the first stages of rapid and disastrous change.

Yet as the Living Planet Report emphasises, there is still a possibility the catastrophe that is overtaking us can be averted, but only if we act quickly and decisively. A rapid transition to a low-carbon economy is no longer a choice, but a necessity, as is concerted international action to protect animals and ecosystems, and to slow down and reverse our destruction of natural environments.

Whatever happens, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. An increasingly unstable climate, degraded ecosystems and rising sea levels will significantly disrupt lives, communities and economies, leading to wider social breakdown and a more extreme political environment. The outlines of this process are already visible in the rise of the far right and the growing tendency to reframe environmental questions as issues of security and border protection. When US President Donald Trump describes the members of the migrant caravan as criminals and terrorists intent on invasion, and sends troops to stop them, one version of the future that awaits us is brought into focus. Likewise, when Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro characterises the Amazon’s indigenous peoples as a disease, and talks of opening the rainforest up to even more rapid development, we see the convergence of corporate interests and the rhetoric of the reactionary right laid bare.

There are times when the challenges that lie ahead seem insurmountable, and hope little more than a sophisticated form of denial. Yet as the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has pointed out, we already possess the technologies required to do what is necessary – and they are not spaceships or artificial intelligence, but renewable energy, sustainable farming practices and, perhaps most importantly, things we do not tend to think of as technology at all: better education and literacy, especially for women, in order to stabilise population growth; basic income to help lift the world’s poorest out of poverty and remove the need for destructive farming practices; progressive taxation and economic reform to reduce inequality and break up the concentration of wealth; better governance to ensure our governments work for all, not just the few. Perhaps we might also take the time to listen to indigenous peoples, and learn from their deep understanding of place and country.

If these prescriptions sound familiar, that is because they are. Environmental justice is also social justice and intergenerational justice. But it is also interspecies justice, because it embodies a recognition we are part of a larger whole, and that we will not survive or prosper unless we do what is necessary to reduce our impact upon other species and the environment and to protect biodiversity.

In one sense, of course, this simply reiterates the Living Planet Report’s underlying argument about the interdependence of human society and the natural world. Yet if one wanted to find hope in the report’s reasoning and conclusions, it would also lie here, in the understanding that building a more just world is a fundamental precondition of preserving and rebuilding the planet’s ecosystems.

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