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writing for godot

Low Consumption Lifestyle? What a Laugh...

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Tuesday, 17 September 2013 08:20
Problems of conservation and population have at least one thing in common – they are often ignored and almost always grossly underestimated as causes of other problems we can't ignore: traffic congestion, air pollution, deforestation, water issues (availability; quality), and sundry diseases attributed to anomalies of environment, nutrition, and modern life in general. It's a relatively small step to a connect-the-dots recognition that many of the burning issues of the day – including actual conflagrations (raging forest fires in Colorado, for example) – are part of a larger fabric that has people everywhere – the global 99% - now living in increasingly overcrowded cities, driving to work on congested highways, cramming into chock-a-bloc buses and trams, and enjoying less-and-less private space.

Mention conservation in a conversation and you're likely to get a lot of blank stares. Suggest the need for Americans to consume less and the reaction is likely to be more demonstrative: sneers or guffaws. We're fat and happy and this is America. The world is a mess but it's not our fault and, anyway, we're bullet proof.

Just two years ago, in October 2011, the world population clock struck 7 billion. The event hardly caused a ripple in the mainstream news media. But many of us can think back to a time in our lives when the world was much, much less crowded. One of my neighbors, Dorothy, recently celebrated her 90th birthday. When Dorothy was born, there were fewer than 2 billion inhabitants making claims on the earth's finite resources.

Think about it: 2 billion versus 7 billion. And that's not a temporary condition. Barring a catastrophe like another Ice Age or a giant asteroid colliding with Planet Earth, this teeming mass of humanity is here to stay; and, worse news for the environment, the population balloon is still inflating.*

World population will rise to over 10 billion by 2100, according to a 2011 U.N. Population Division report. Earlier projections pointing to a peak of 9 billion at mid-century are now thought to have been overly optimistic. And it's not only China and India facing a demographic juggernaut. In sub-Saharan Africa alone "the population could more than triple, rising from today’s one billion to 3.6 billion, the report said — a sobering forecast for a continent already struggling to provide food and water for its people." If current trends hold, Nigeria's population, for example, will rise from 162 million to 720 million.

Nor is it somebody else's problem – traffic congestion, for example, is a familiar problem to millions of Americans, and some projections put US population at 550 billion in 2050, or about double the number at the turn of the century. Currently, Europe's population is much larger than America's. The EU 27 have a combined population over 500 million; the US is around 320 million. But both the fertility rates and immigration patterns point to a trend that will dramatically change the demographic balance by 2040.

If we think the world is too noisy, congested, polluted, or denuded now, imagine what it will be like during the last half of the 21st century when there are billions more people living on a fixed amount of real estate, consuming finite resources, and trying to get to work or school every day. But what was once called the "population bomb" – and met with dire predictions – is now all but forgotten.

Meanwhile, we Americans are loathe to give up our gas guzzling, jumbo-sized SUVs. The number of cars in the world surpassed the one billion mark in 2010 – a billion and counting. Given that tens of millions of new cars roll off the assembly lines every year, stemming the tide is an urgent necessity. What's actually happening is quite the opposite – as population increases and global wealth is redistributed from the First World to the Third World (the Second World no longer exists), output of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines rises at constantly accelerating rates.

And yet, there's little or no talk of conservation; no pressure to build urban mass transit in this country, or long-distance high-speed passenger rail systems of the sort found in virtually all other advanced economies; no protest over the billions of dollars poured into building new highways and repairing old ones. And don't let the highway lobby fool you – roads don't pay for themselves. According to the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG): "…road construction has sucked $600 billion out of America’s public purse since the dawn of the interstate system."

Actually, instead of recognizing the need for conservation, the trend in this country is strongly in the opposite direction. "US shale oil supply shock shifts global power balance" screams a BBC News headline. "Over the next five years, the US will account for a third of new oil supplies, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)." We learn that in the next five years the US will go from world's largest oil importer to a net oil and gas exporter. The IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven says, "North America has set off a supply shock that is sending ripples throughout the world." A supply shock!

What the world needs is a demand shock: a sharp drop in the use of fossil fuels and enlightened public policy aimed at shutting down dangerous extraction methods – notably "fracking" – known to damage the environment. Will President Obama take one small step in this direction and nix the Keystone XL pipeline? "Yours is the last presidency in which it is possible for America to choose a responsible path forward for itself, before climate disruption becomes unmanageably dangerous..." – these words from a letter signed by "150 high-profile figures, who between them raised millions for Obama's two election campaigns" underscore an important fact: "Keystone" has become a symbol in the struggle between the forces of unbridled capitalism and environmental activism, self-indulgence and sustainability, consumption and conservation, greed and deferred gratification.

Whatever Washington does or does not do to protect the environment, nothing relieves the rest of us of responsibility to do what we can. Let's think about ways big and small to bring about a better balance between consumption and conservation in our daily lives. Most of us understand why it's necessary in theory to consume less and conserve more, but practicing a low-consumption lifestyle in a mass consumption society without looking radical or risible to family, friends, and neighbors is another matter. And the subject of a future post.

*Parts of the following paragraphs are excerpted from a piece published on 16 May, 2013. your social media marketing partner
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