Lets stop hiding behind recycling and be honest about consumption
We have offshored the problem of escalating consumption, and our perceptions of it,
by considering only territorial emissions
Every society has topics it does not discuss. These are the issues which challenge its
comfortable assumptions. They are the ones that remind us of mortality, which threaten
the continuity we anticipate, which expose our various beliefs as irreconcilable.
Among them are the facts which sink the cosy assertion, that (in David Cameron's
words) "there need not be a tension between green and growth".
At a reception in London recently I met an extremely rich woman, who lives, as most
people with similar levels of wealth do, in an almost comically unsustainable fashion:
jetting between various homes and resorts in one long turbo-charged holiday. When I
told her what I did, she responded: "Oh I agree, the environment is so important. I'm
crazy about recycling." But the real problem, she explained, was "people breeding too
I agreed that population is an element of the problem, but argued that consumption is
rising much faster and unlike the growth in the number of people is showing no
signs of levelling off. She found this notion deeply offensive: I mean the notion that
human population growth is slowing. When I told her that birth rates are dropping
almost everywhere, and that the world is undergoing a slow demographic transition,
she disagreed violently: she has seen, on her endless travels, how many children "all
those people have".
As so many in her position do, she was using population as a means of disavowing her
own impacts. The issue allowed her to transfer responsibility to others: people at the
opposite end of the economic spectrum. It allowed her to pretend that her shopping and
flying and endless refurbishments of multiple homes are not a problem. Recycling and
population: these are the amulets people clasp in order not to see the clash between
protecting the environment and rising consumption.
In a similar way, we have managed, with the help of a misleading global accounting
us to blame foreigners particularly poorer foreigners for the problem.
When nations negotiate global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, they are held
responsible only for the gases produced within their own borders. Partly as a result of
this convention, these tend to be the only ones that countries count. When these
carbon footprints. But as markets of all kinds have been globalised, and as
manufacturing migrates from rich nations to poorer ones, territorial accounting bears