At this point in history, human beings in industrialized countries essentially have two options. Neither is pretty.
Option #1: We can continue to live our lives close to the same way we have been since the dawn of consumer society in the 1920s. This will bring about irreversible eco-social destruction brought on by climate change and quickly diminishing natural resources. By most scientific accounts, current generations will soon begin experiencing the early stages of this massive system shock.
Option #2: We can all drop what we’re doing and immediately and actively begin to focus on the long-term picture. For many of us, this means drastically changing our attitudes and lifestyles and ambitions–really our entire sense of selves and our relationships with the outside world. We’ll have to stop buying things just because we want them but don’t really need them, even if we have the cash to throw away. It also means changing the very structure of our economy to build a sustainable, renewable system of extraction and production that includes the true cost of goods and puts a price on fossil fuels. As societies we’ll have to redefine economic "growth" and "progress" from the standard measure of GDP to something (e.g., the GPI) that actually measures environmental externalities and quality of life.
Can consumer society survive climate change?
The laws of physics demand that industrialized societies simply cannot continue this way forever. Whether we like it or not, our collective lifestyle eventually will be extinct. The first effects of climate change have either already started or are around the corner, and scientists warn that dramatic and irreversible change could come relatively suddenly. [For an interactive map showing predicted impacts of climate change, click here.]
In addition to the threat of catastrophic climate change, all of the most sought-after natural resources are approaching peak output or are otherwise increasingly scarce. Future military conflict over control of these resources (i.e., fossil fuels, water, old-growth wood, valuable minerals, and edible fish) is predicted by the US government, independent analysts, and environmentalists.
Liberal versus conservative political debates in industrialized countries are essentially moot on these subjects, since they both support an irrational global economic system that relies on degradation of the environment in order to create so-called growth. Logic demands that such a system cannot go on forever. Neither liberals nor conservatives offer a viable strategy to deal with the economic realities of an exhaustible environment, preferring to promote the idea that a society reared on an "if-it-feels-good-buy-it" ideology can go on and on forever…as long as we try to buy "green."
Al Gore, for all he’s done to educate the public and spread the word about the climate threat, is unconvincing on how our economies can continue to prioritize endless profits in a world of finite resources.
Adding to this dilemma, exponential population growth and the quick rise of an Asian middle class that has, like us, been seduced by the ideology of conspicuous consumption are adding increasing energy demands and pressure to a geosystem that is already overstressed.
Our state capitalist economic system as it currently exists, along with the materialist consumer mindset that keeps it going, cannot survive indefinitely. We are overheating the planet and in the process quickly exploiting the final supplies of its natural resources. The lawful business of usurping and then selling off ecological capital and calling it profit must eventually come to an end.
Bold, radical change is necessary
It’s curious to me how unwilling we are to adapt to this reality even in the face of near certain future disaster. Most people I talk to in New York and Paris have a pretty good idea about global warming and impending climate disaster and many people are very worried. Yet with busy jobs or job searches, physical and emotional stress, parenting and financial worries, and less than ideal sleep, people are understandably more focused on getting through any given week. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect drastic changes in such a world. We’ve grown accustomed to certain comforts, and life is already stressful enough. In a sense, we really just need to chillax and breathe. Many of us deserve a lot more rest than we get.
Yet nothing less than a drastic shift in attitude and lifestyle–a new paradigm–is needed. This is especially true in the US, where change appears to be going in the wrong direction. One year after his inauguration, the Obama phenomenon has unsurprisingly turned out to be much more about good marketing than real sociopolitical change. Right-wing populism and climate change denial are on the rise, and the Supreme Court just handed Corporate America control of our elections. We can expect that the tectonic shift in the political foundation brought by the Citizens United decision will make it that much more difficult for Congress to pass effective climate change legislation and to ratify an international climate change treaty in time to prevent disaster.
The harsh reality: Our political economic system is no longer viable. Obama has taken the wheel of an unstoppable, unsustainable, economic model. He’s got a steady hand, but the machine’s got no brakes and the mountain road ends up ahead. We’ve already started smashing through the first warning barriers. Will we head straight off the cliff?
Hope remains in the hands of the many human citizens and consumers, especially the richest 20% of us in industrialized countries who consume approximately 75% of the planet’s goods. We just might decide to fight our natural myopia, snap out of the consumer lifestyle, make the necessary political and cultural changes, and demand climate justice before it’s too late. When will we stop believing that we "need" all those goods and services that (surprise!) aren’t necessary to live full, happy lives? Switching to energy-saving lightbulbs and recycling trash are fine and good, but they won’t save us and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking so. As for carbon offsetting, it’s a bad joke.
We’re going to have to overcome massive denial about the limited lifespan of an economic system that prioritizes endless profit and whimsical consumption and completely reevaluate our psychological and social expectations. Granted, this may seem an improbable task in one generation, but we have little choice if we want to save our living home.
Can we stop overconsuming in time?