Monday, 29 June 2015

Does greed or need drive the planetary crisis?

The Green Party’s distinctive insight is that we must all live on planet Earth and that, in the long run, we must live within our planetary limits. Our species already grabs 40% of the Earth’s production. That’s morally indefensible – we are just one species yet we are driving the rest toward extinction.

It’s also unsustainable. Our impacts are ever increasing but we have only one planet. Once we’ve converted all the forests and grasslands to crops we’ll have nowhere to expand and the system of planetary exploitation we call consumer capitalism will have to stop expanding.

But that, of course, will be too late. Our increasing emissions of greenhouse gases put us on course for at least four, maybe six, degrees of warming. That will raise sea levels (by 20 meters if we can stay below four degrees) and reduce global food production. The combination of less food and more people can have no good outcome.

Pope Francis has blamed our environmental overshoot on greed whilst Mark Lynas and his fellow ‘ecomodernists’ see it as the result of trying to meet human needs. The Pope is closer to the truth.
The great expansion in fossil fuel burning in the 19th century was led by entrepreneurs. Though greed was one motive so was the desire (by some) to do good. That century produced new forms of philanthropy and Andrew Carnegie’s dictum that ‘the man who dies rich dies disgraced’ as well new forms of exploitation. Yet I believe that the simple desire to make a (big) difference was more significant than either greed or philanthropy.

Yet from these origins came a system that expected, in fact required, company directors to be greedy and which for the last 50 years has encouraged consumer greed through advertising. The system – consumer capitalism – is largely self-sustaining. It has created greedy consumers and promotes managers who are greedy for the growth and profits of their firms. It also rewards academics and commentators who encourage consumer greed (yes, I do mean you, fashion journos!) and who praise managers who increase profits – whatever the costs to other people and species.

And yet we do need some growth if we are to help the ‘bottom billion’ who go to bed hungry out of poverty. The challenge to the Green Party – indeed to everyone who cares about people and planet – is to find forms of development that relieve the worst poverty, bring greater well-being to ‘consumers’ and reduce our impacts on the rest of the planet’s ecosystems.

And to win the political battle of ideas for the new way.

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