Ten Trendy Actions which are very bad for the Environment
Monday, 17th November 2014
- Economic growth: Once people have clean water, a healthy diet, adequate housing with plumbing and electricity, meaningful employment, access to modern healthcare and a few other essential personal possessions, all additional consumption does very little to improve life expectancy or happiness. Yet our GDP growth drains many finite resources that could be better used by others suffering real poverty or be saved for future generations. Overconsumption, generating vast oceans of rubbish, is currently the biggest threat to our eco-system. We should focus on ensuring eveyone has the basics rather than artificially boosting the economy through superfluous retail therapy.
- Buying a more fuel-efficient car: If you really can’t live without a car you may feel buying a newer and more fuel-efficient model may help save the planet. Unfortunately two thirds of the pollution that an average European vehicle creates takes place in the multistage resource-extraction and manufacturing process. By buying cars more regularly, you may well boost your country's GDP but for a marginal gain in fuel economy, you contribute to massive environmental destruction thousands of miles from home. Worse still, a more fuel-efficient vehicle will encourage you to drive more rather than consider other options like walking, cycling, public transport or simply avoiding unnecessary journeys.
- Having more than two children (per woman): Many countries may have undergone a demographic transition from traditional large families to one or two child families, yet the world’s population is still rising. Most estimates predict a peak global population between 8 and 10 billion human beings sometime between 2050 and 2100. The rapid rise from just 1 billion in 1825 to 2 billion around 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 6 billion in 1998 and now over 7 billion has happened largely due to two parallel developments. First huge advances in sanitation and medicine have dramatically lowered infant mortality, so most children now survive even in the poorest African countries. Second the fossil fuel revolution has provided a plentiful source of cheap non-renewable energy helping us overcome previous constraints on the earth’s human carrying capacity as envisaged by Thomas Malthus. We have witnessed two centuries of rapid technological progress, but until recently only 10–15% of the world’s population participated in mass consumerism. While we may be able to survive with a low-consumption Tanzanian standard of living, hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, South Americans and even Subsarahan Africans are transitioning towards more Western European consumption patterns. Car ownership is currently growing at a much faster rate than human population. Nigeria alone now has 180 million inhabitants, mainly in a few large conurbations. Yet its fertility rate is unlikely to drop to replacement level any time soon without Chinese-style coercive one-child famility policies. If its economy and population continue to grow at their current rate, then the vast oil reserves in the Niger Delta may just suffice for local needs. Some claim education and female emancipation can reduce the birth rate to sustainable levels. However, greater per-capita consumption usually accompanies such a transition. Some fear an ageing population, but with increasing automation and growing unemployment, this may well be an opportunity to build massive care sector that can almost guarantee employment for millions of jobless young adults. We should welcome a natural decrease in population, but fear only the disastrous human consquences of our failure to deal with two-edge sword of skyrocketing consumption and a record global population.
- Obessing with cleanliness and presentation: Yes, we all need to wash to keep our bodies fresh and prevent diseases from spreading, but our modern obsession with appearances often does more harm than good. Not only do washing machines and irons consume vast amounts of electricity (typically 2kWh each), mostly generated by gas, coal or nuclear power plants, but your washing detergent along with 50 litres of water per full load ends up in a local sewage plant, where it has to be treated before being dumped in a natural body of water.
- Holidaying abroad: We all love to enrich our lives with a taste of foreign cultures, stunning scenery, historic architecture, good food, sunny weather, beautiful beaches and exciting nightlife. However, cheap long-distance travel is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until recently, most working class Europeans just went to the nearest seaside resort or embarked on a brief excursion to the rural hinterland away from urban pollution. Air travel has made the world a smaller place and transformed thousands of kilometres of coastline and thousands of small fishing villages into monotonous open-air shopping malls, tanning lounges and nightclubs. As a result many areas of Spain, Portugal, France and Greek Islands have been colonised by bland global consumer culture and bear little semblance to their host countries’ traditional cultures.
- Unbalanced mass migration: While many of us pay lip service to cultural diversity, the trend is clearly towards cultural homogenisation. The more people migrate from one cultural region to another, the more they lose contact with their cultural heritage and embrace global consumer culture. Most pro-migration arguments focus on short term economic growth rather than long-term socio-environmental stability. If people were migrating away from overburdened high-consumption regions to live a simpler life in a more environmentally sustainable way in a low-consumption country, we may be able to temporarily justify unbalanced migration. Likewise, positive immigration can be sustained for a limited period in spacious and resources-rich countries, like Australia, Argentina, Canada, Russia or the USA (before it became a net importer of energy and food), as long as the growing population does not unduly endanger delicate ecosystems. However, most recent migration has been away from relatively poor countries to spendthrift countries. Worse still much has been from warmer to colder countries that require greater indoor heating for much of the year. As long as migration is driven by artificial economic incentives, it will lead to greater per capita consumption, while promoting the wrong kind of development in countries of mass emigration, i.e. a brain drain and greater dependence on trade with wealthier countries. Yet current levels of immigration to richer countries cannot address the fundamental socio-economic imbalances that caused people to migrate in the first place. Ironically, growing consumer demand for imports from richer countries leads to greater environmental depredation in poorer countries with lower environmental standards. While many trendy lefties consider any opposition to mass immigration racist, many pro-migration arguments are incredibly prejudiced, e.g. assuming cheap third world workers should care for the elderly and disabled in wealthy countries because locals loathe such menial jobs. One wonders who should look after the old and sick in poorer countries. In an ideal world we would have a balanced cultural exchange between different communities. Indeed the technology exists for us to share life-enhancing ideas with other communities around the world without having to leave our home region. Ironically, tougher immigration controls are not the only way to redress this imbalance, shrinking overheating economies may be a better long-term solution. If we fix the underkying economic imbalances and remove the need for economic migration, we could let people move freely. Alas we are a long way from such an ideal world.
- Outsourcing industry: We all hate oil refineries, chemical processing plants, gargantuan assembly lines, pollution, inhumane working conditions and child labour, at least in our immediate backyard. Unless you retreat to a low-tech self-sufficient farmstead, which would require a lot of hard work, your lifestyle depends on a colossal industrial complex. The short-term economic gains of cheaper goods due to lower wages are offset by greater environmental cost of shipping goods half-away around the globe and the loss of key skillsets essential to our modern way of life. Worse still, as factories have closed in the UK, retail outlets have mushroomed everywhere from Lands’ End to John O’Groats. Consequently our activities cause more pollution than they did in the grim 1960s, but it largely been transferred to the Asian Pacific Rim and Africa.
- Health and Safety Regulations: Common sense goes a long way, but many health and safety regulations actually obstruct simple maintenance tasks and waste finite public resources. I have been prevented from climbing on a desk to change lightbulb in a local council office where I worked temporarily, because their insurance policy for such tasks only covered trained electricians. As a result, a council technician had to drive 10 miles to change a lightbulb and the council paid me for two hours in which I could not work.
- Stupidity: Yes, I know stupidity is fun. Why walk to the shops, when you can show off your new car? Why watch a movie at home, when you can drive to a new cinema complex twenty miles away? Why cycle in wet and windy weather, when you can drive to your local gym? Why install a filter to purify tap water, when you can buy bottle water? Why wash nappies, when you can buy disposable nappies? Why drink coffee from a reusable flask, when you can advertise your favourite caffeinated milk brand in a disposable paper cup? Many people know their actions damage the environment, but other social pressures take precedence. Now try explaining to a 19 year old lad that he should not drive his new girlfriend to a restaurant, but rather they should both catch a bus or cycle.
- Ignorance: This has never been quite as trendy as stupidity, but is still surprisingly widespread. However, the worst form of ignorance is credulity, especially when it comes to the kind of eco-friendly advertising clearly geared to pseudo intellectuals. These trendy ignoramuses like to believe they can help African coffee growers by choosing a fairtrade brand at Starbucks or tackle clean water scarcity by buying Volvic-branded bottles of flavoured water. Their actions merely help the marketing of trendy brands and further subjugate the developing world to foreign multinationals.