Painting Ourselves into a Corner – John Leonard

This piece was submitted by John Leonard, who is a Canberra-based poet and writer. His latest publication is the poetry collection Braided Lands (Ginninderra Press, 2010).
Thank You

The World Wild Fund for Nature’s Living Planet 2010 Report includes the bad news that humanity’s demands on the planet exceed by 50% the planet’s capacity.

This simple observation serves to trivialise a great many of our current political and economic concerns. For example it casts the ‘debate’ about global wamring in a different light: even if climate change deniers were to prove that carbon dioxide emissions have no effect on climate, they would then have to repeat the exercise and prove that every demand on the biosphere from human activities has no effect on the ecosystem either. It is obvious that it is the current level of all of human activity in the biosphere that is the problem, not only the particular effects of particular products of this activity. And the old tricks of coopting more farmland, finding more resources to steal from other people, or intensification of production, which have all been used extensively in the last 200 years, are no longer useful or relevant.

And yet in facing the ecological deficit, the greatest challenge to human survival in our history, we have painted ourselves into a corner. If we think about previous crises in history, for example the Second World War, these have been faced by appealing to the spirit of self-sacrifice in the populace. We are far less used to loss, deprivation and sacrifice than former generations. But also, for the past few generations we have increasingly subscribed to the notion that progress has to be coupled with economic growth. This mentality is one which will make it hard for us to accept a situation which demands, as the current environmental crisis will do, that we make choices that seem against the national interest, that rely on long-term sacrifices to create a better world several generations into the future, and in which heroic efforts and increased production will need to be renounced in favour of efforts which will seem unheroic against a background of decreasing production.

The idea of zero-growth has been around for a long time and indeed it is implicit in almost all pre-modern political thought, where economic growth is seen merely as one side-effect of a well-organised society, not a precondition for it. However, it flies in the face of conventional thinking. The effect that the necessary rethinking of economic activity to bring our world back into the ecological black would have on people who have been reared to expect more each year and to see society growing in the conventional economic sense is not difficult to imagine. In fact you only have to see some of the hysterical ridicule heaped on the concept of zero-growth when it is raised online to appreciate this.

In effect in trusting to economic growth as the guarantor of progress in society we are trusting to the one thing that is bound to fail, the one thing that cannot be relied on.

In place of the idea of economic growth and the promise of employment, we need a rigorous analysis of what we do, rather than where the money runs. For example for many years Australian governments have extensively subsidised the export of biomass from native forests in the south-east and Tasmania to, amongst other destinations, the landfills of Japan.

For these sums of public funds, jobs in the south-east and Tasmania (but not many), were and are maintained, and profits made. But if instead of concentrating on profit and jobs we think what the process actually is that is occurring it is much as I have described it ‘the export of biomass from native forests in the south-east and Tasmania to… the landfills of Japan’: native forests are destroyed merely so that a range of ephemeral packaging and paper products are produced, most of which will end up after very little use in landfill. This is in strong contrast to the past history of Japan as a country of few resources which got by with almost obsessive little in the way of material goods and reused materials religiously (literally). It is also in contrast to the need for large areas of native vegetation to remain undisturbed, in order for them to provide vital climate and other ecological services.

If we have an economy in which the decisions are based how our activities affect the flow of energy and nutrients in the environment, rather than how our activities can benefit small groups of shareholders and ‘stakeholders’, then we would be going a long way towards ridding ourselves of ecological debt. This type of economy would necessarily look as if it was performing worse than a conventional capitalist one, especially at first, until people began to think ecologically, not economically. However it is difficult to imagine how our current global capitalist economy could have performed worse than it has done, in absolute terms, leading us further and further into ecological debt.

Another necessary, but difficult, transformation for our society is to accept that the earth is seriously overpopulated. It is difficult not only because many people see calls for a smaller population as a direct threat to their own posterity, but also because a concern with population is seen by many as ‘anti-humanitarian’, with a lack of concern for what used to be called the Third World and the issues of poverty and global justice. I would certainly agree that the ideas of some people who express a concern about population do seem to be less than compassionate and motivated more by fear and racism than any higher motives.

However we should note that in reality the ‘overpopulated’ areas of the world are not the Third World, for most of the nations that are in this group have per capita ecological credit, according to the data in the Living Planet Report and elsewhere. Instead people who are concerned about population should concentrate on the populations of developed countries, for here the typical per capita ecological footprint is something like four times global capacity, as opposed the global average footprint of 150% of global capacity; in the US and Australia it is eight times global capacity per capita. A fall in population in the developed economies would be where the real gains in ecological credit are to be made in the short-term. Further, if the developed nations are seen as bringing in policies to encourage people to have fewer children and to have population targets that are realistic for their landspace (as opposed to their economies), then the message may get about, and the global population will be more likely to decline by the conscious choices of people everywhere.

So from this point of view it would make sense to argue for a reduction in Australia’s population, a reversal of the Costello baby bonus, with incentives for having children being progressively removed, and a restriction of immigration to bring the population down to a more sustainable level. (For Australia this might be 10 million people or lower.)

These two pieces of mental furniture, commitment to economic growth and a refusal to countenance any concern with population, are two impediments to positive change towards a world not in ecological deficit. These beliefs seem perfectly natural and obviously true, but they are ones which will have to be discarded if we are to have any kind of future at all. Commitments to economic and population growth will in the future be seen as an outdated and foolish set of ideological beliefs that in end had disastrous consequences.

©John Leonard

opinions expressed in this piece are those of John Leonard are not necessarily those of Turn Left, nor do we endorse any organisation mentioned in this post

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