On average people are getting richer quickly. In 2012 the world economic growth rate was 5.2% in a single year. Visualise for a moment the impact of 10 billion people living a middle class lifestyle and consuming the same level of resources that the average person does in the UK. It simply doesn't work.
One way of tackling this is to turn around to people in what used to be the third world and say that you can't have this kind of lifestyle but the old rich West can. It is only necessary to state this to make if self evident that it is an unreasonable point of view that cannot possibly stand up to a moment's challenge from someone in a rapidly developing country. It simply isn't reasonable to say to poor countries that they cannot have economic growth and that they cannot enjoy higher standards of living. Even those of us with a dislike of consumer culture cannot pretend that it is unreasonable in a hot country to want to acquire a fridge or for a women whose life is limited by the drudgery of spending hours on hand washing to want to buy a washing machine.
An increase in the standard of living is desirable for the vast majority of people living in poor countries. It is also desirable for the vast majority of poor people in the UK who could make their lives a lot easier if they had enough money and who would spend much of it on the basic and very useful consumer goods that some of us already have.
I have always regarded taking people out of poverty and giving them a decent standard of living as a positive. I have also always regarded economic policies such as austerity which slow down economic growth and force large numbers of people to experience unemployment or low wages as extremely bad.
The question therefore becomes how to resolve an apparent contradiction. If we all get richer then the levels of consumption of energy, resources and food that this implies go beyond what the planet can sustain. There will be more of us. The vast majority of us like being able to afford necessary and nice things. Yet if we all do that the planet will collapse under the pressure and the economic and environmental misery that will result will go beyond what any of us can properly imagine.
We tend to phrase our concerns about the environment in terms of degrees of global warming and concerns that we will hit peak oil. We ought to be saying that you or your children will starve. The short term increase in consumption will result in a long term collapse. The soil, the air, our forests and our water can't survive the rate of use of fertilisers and oil and the generation of C02 and plastic waste that will result.
It would be nice if the way out of this could be to teach every person on the planet to adopt a low consumption philosophy and to learn to live in balance and harmony with the planet. This is very unlikely to happen. Or even if it does it isn't going to happen soon enough to fend off severe problems.
The only way out of this situation is to find ways of providing what people want with reduced levels of damaging and unsustainable consumption. This means three big things have to change:
1. We can only consume products that are made from components that can easily be taken apart and put back into use. What we consume cannot be thrown away. The economy of production and consumption has to be circular. Plastics have to be kept to a minimum and only made in ways that make them easy to biodegrade into useful by products.
2. What we consume has to use much less energy. Indeed much of what we consume has to produce energy as well as use it. This requires changes in technology and those changes need to be both improvements to existing technology that is going to be around in the medium term and investment in developing and implementing the technology we need for a genuinely sustainable future. An easy example to quote is homes. It is already perfectly possible to improve insulation in houses, to add solar panels or heat exchanges and to end up with a home which generates more power than it uses. A more challenging example is the car. Whether we like it or not the numbers of cars is going to continue to increase for many years. Their impact will clearly not be good for the planet. The damage will be much less if they are efficient and consume little fuel. It will be less again if they can generate solar energy through their roofs, if they can run off hydrogen fuel, if third world countries begin their car consumption with electric vehicle infrastructure and if the materials they are made from are all recycled.
3. The way we produce food has to change. It has to be done with massively less energy, with less pesticides, and with better planned irrigation. This requires greater varieties of crops to be grown and rotated within any given area of land so that pests and diseases are manageable. And this requires extra time, money and technology. Industry has used new technology to move away from clumsy production lines producing identical products and generating enormous pollution. Agriculture can achieve the same. Industrial agriculture is cheap but it is unsustainable and it doesn't produce particularly high yields per square metre. High tech eco-agriculture using integrated pest management can produce greater varieties of food in greater quantities without destroying the environment.
As I see it the alternatives are simple.
a. We do nothing and let the world economy consume itself into collapse.
b. We persuade some very poor people that they don't want to be wealthy and consume those nice products they've seen on TV
c. National and international government provides strong enough incentives and enforceable laws to ensure that we have the science and the spirit of enterprise to move to a new era of a circular economy.
There is no doubt that the last of these options is exceptionally hard and difficult to pull off. The price of the first will eventually force us to do it. The real challenge is to develop the political will to achieve the change before it is too late. Provided of course we think our species and our planet are worth saving!