In a recent article, George Monbiot highlights the great taboo of the 21st century – that is, our inability to discuss the inevitable failure of a society built upon compound growth, which comes at the expense of the Earth’s resources. According to Monbiot, the finitude of these resources combined with delusions of the attainability of perpetual growth destines society to self-destruction – a direction that it appears to be rapidly heading in.
Such a proclamation won’t come as a revelation to many, and Monbiot simply reiterates – rather interestingly (see the pyramid analogy he cites for a startling perspective on the point), an awkward and ‘inconvenient truth’, about modern existence – namely, that it is unsustainable under the current model. But Monbiot’s concerns go beyond a simple reminder of this fact. What is more unnerving, he claims, is our silence on the issue: that is, society’s reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the problem, and furthermore, its excessive concerns with trivialities.
Such reluctance is certainly perceptible in Britain. You only had to open a newspaper in the run up to the European parliamentary elections to see a distinct lack of political discourse on the issue, and an inordinate amount of Nigel Farage sipping real ale. Such concerns (and their lack thereof) are echoed in a 2013 poll by Yougov, which shows that 57% of the population believe that immigration is one of the three most important issues facing the country today, compared to 7% who consider the environment to be so. This latter figure rose by more than threefold when we began experiencing the repercussions of our environmental neglect – e.g. the floods that effected much of the South earlier this year. Yet once the insurance companies had been in to replace the sodden carpets, all was forgotten, and this figure fell to 10% the month after.
It’s not difficult to see why we are so neglectful of our predicament. The bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach is far easier than burying your smartphone. Moreover, as the above statistics show, we only appear to engage in the issue when we are directly confronted with the consequences. When the problem isn’t so visible, or others matters become more pressing, it’s quickly forgotten. Such a reluctance to address this pervasive and overarching issue might ultimately arise out of a lack of an apparent solution, or a belief that it is a problem which has no solution – that is, there is no way of reconciling our current way of life with nature’s finite resources.
This latter concern certainly has some truth – we cannot sustain our current levels of deforestation, carbon dioxide emission or rare animal poaching, to name just a few of our vices. But this does not mean we have to sit in the trees and forbid ourselves from the benefits of society. Rather, we must find alternative and sustainable ways of creating what society demands. Detailed plans have been proposed – and peer-reviewed – which show just how we can build a sustainable future, in a way which doesn’t pander to optimistic technological developments, and which we could begin implementing today.
An article published in the Scientific American by two researchers from the United States details the logistics for how the world could be entirely powered by renewable energy in 2030. They argue that the energy available from solar, wind and water is almost sixty times more than the forecasted global energy requirements for 2030, and furthermore, the infrastructure necessary to harvest this energy (11.5 terawatts), could feasibly be implemented at a cost cheaper per watt than fossil fuels. Although there are a few relatively minor problems with their plan (such as the acquisition of the rare earth metals required for building batteries and turbines), the fact that it represents the output of merely two individuals suggests that a more refined solution could be achieved with an increased level of societal commitment. Others, such as the contributors to the Blue Planet synthesis paper drawn up for the UN environment program, also agree that there are realistic methods at our disposal that would allow us to sustainably develop, without the need for invoking fantastical new technologies.
Assuming, then, that there is a lot we can be doing to improve our use of the earth’s resources (even if we deny that the above methods are infallible, they at least represent an improvement), how do we get started, given we appear so incapable of discussing this issue? Part of the problem, which has already been raised, is the lack of a clearly specified and agreed-upon solution. This may cause many to consider such attempts futile, or to recourse to more convenient, albeit erroneous fantasies, such as the omniscience of the free-market.
The remedy for this lump in our throat might, then, lie in formulating a clearly specifiable and widely agreed-upon set of goals and commitments which all nations are (eventually) lobbied on and which act as the backdrop for any conversation with regards to the environment. Vagaries and belched sentiments such as “sustainable living” need to be removed from the vocabulary and clearly formulated, more explicit plans, need to take their place. These must then be widely publicised and made intelligible, such that at election time no one is in doubt as to what is being demanded, and during periods of economic decline they are less easily forgotten.
Once the electorate has an articulable environmental plan, and thus a platform for discussion, the effects will be contagious. Corporations, and their activities, will begin to be measured against a more sophisticated criterion of sustainable development, rather than the current pandering to superficial laymen notions of ‘eco-friendly’ (such as green packaging and catchy buzzwords). Politicians who can so easily break their pre-election environmen-tal promises will be held more accountable to their word- and their progress will become more gaugeable as a consequence.
It is tempting to think we shall forever be alright – that something will always sort itself out. But societies before us have perished because of such arrogance – a fact we must not forget. What has been outlined here is obviously very theoretical, and there are clearly a number of difficulties which it presents. But at its crux, the transition from a silent society to a society in which real solutions are being achieved relies on endowing its citizens with the knowledge of such a transit. Clearly the powers that be do not want us to have this knowledge, as it is not in the short term interest of business, and thereupon it is irksome for politicians. We therefore need to educate ourselves in accordance with the familiar and aptly fitting dictum ‘knowledge is power’, so that we can begin calling the shots at to the trajectory of our future development.