Rapacious consumerism and climate change
Commercialisation has poisoned all areas of contemporary life, and together with its partner in crime, consumerism, is the principal cause of man-made climate change.
Operating under the suffocating shadow of neo-liberalism, the market forces of commercialisation act blindly and indiscriminately. The presiding deity is money; the goal of endeavour quick profit and limitless growth – no matter what the human or environmental costs may be. And the consequences to both are great, long-term and far-reaching: global climate change, with its numerous effects, and the wholesale destruction of the natural environment being the most significant.
The Earth is our home, “our sister”, as Pope Francis calls it in his ground-breaking Encyclical letter, “On Care For Our Common Home”. But we are poisoning and raping her; polluting the rivers and oceans, destroying the rainforests, coral reefs and natural habitats; the treasures she has given us to care for.
It is unchecked human behaviour that is lighting the various fires of destruction. Unless there is a change in the unsustainable, overindulgent way we are living, the prospects for the planet are bleak.
The interrelated environmental catastrophes are the greatest threat to human and non-human life, and they affect the economic and social crises facing humanity. And they highlight the need for a new imagination to meet the challenges we face.
Our abuse of the Earth, together with what many believe to be a growing threat of nuclear confrontation, has, as Noam Chomsky makes clear, brought about the most serious crisis in human history. It has motivated millions of concerned people throughout the world to unite against government apathy and destructive actions, but is being met with complacency and arrogance by ideologically-driven politicians and the corrupt corporations, who, to a greater or lesser extent, determine policy.
Pope Francis expresses the view of many when he says that, “the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. He goes on to point out that “we may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth”, resulting from the wide-ranging effects of climate change and global warming.
While man-made climate change resulting from the burning of fossil fuels is due to various factors, a lifestyle based on rapacious desire for all things material is the key underlying cause. This is made clear in a University College London (UCL) research paper, which states that, “although population and demographics are considerable factors in carbon emissions and consequent global warming, consumption patterns remain the most significant factor. It adds that consumers, rather than people, cause climate change,” although in the world of big business and among some governments these appear to be synonymous terms…
A world of exacerbated consumption
Consumerism is the life-blood of capitalism. It is an engineered pattern of behaviour that functions and is perpetuated through the constant agitation of desire for pleasure, a transient state that is sold as happiness.
The consumer culture has been manufactured. Human beings are not naturally rapacious but have been coerced into it. Through manipulative advertising and marketing strategies corporations have promoted the false idea that happiness and contentment will be discovered on the next shopping excursion, inside the packaging of the new gadget or video game.
The designers of the consumer game know well that no such peace will be discovered in the material world of make-believe, and so discontent is guaranteed, prompting the next desire-fuelled outing. And so the cycle of inner emptiness, perpetual longing and dependence on transient appeasement through consumption is maintained…
The consequences of this are ever-greater energy demands, oceans of landfill waste, deforestation, contaminated air that kills millions every year, and widespread environmental destruction.
Consumerism is a Western way of life, another toxic export – together with fast food, obesity and diabetes – that is now finding its way into the cities of some developing countries. It is not the billions living in poverty in the towns and villages of sub-Saharan Africa, or rural India and China, who are indulging in the voracious consumption that is crippling the planet. The poorest 50 per cent of the world’s population is, according to Oxfam, responsible for a mere 10 per cent of “total lifestyle consumption emissions”. The cult of consumerism is predominantly the pastime of the spoilt and bored – with access to easy credit – in the developed nations of the world. Europe and America, for example, with a mere 12 per cent of global population, account for over 60 per cent of worldwide consumption…
Unrestrained consumption and perpetual growth are essential to the success and profitability of the neo-liberal project, which without such consumerism would collapse. And so insatiable desire for material possessions is virtually insisted upon by governments obsessed with economic growth, and businesses that depend on sales. This itch, which is constantly excited by persuasive advertising, a culture of comparison and narrow definitions of the self, feeds an urge to continually consume…
The extreme capitalist system that is demanding such behaviour is inseparable from wealth and income inequality, climate change, displacement of people and environmental degradation. All of these are interconnected and increasingly recognised to be so…
All forms of life are mistreated in such a world because nothing has any inherent value; everything has fallen prey to the curse of commercialisation and is seen as a commodity, including human beings. Rivers, valleys, forests and mountains all are commodified. They are bought up by large companies who see such natural treasures in terms of an end product, a source of profit when sold in the shopping centres and homogenous high streets of our towns and cities.
In the rush to drain the Earth of all goodness, huge numbers of indigenous people are displaced, the land ruined and beauty lost. Where the corporate hand of mankind is found, all too often one witnesses exploitation, destruction and waste…
Impelled by a restless appetite to conquer everyone and own everything, “capitalism,” as Naomi Klein rightly states, “is at war with life on earth”. And if triumph is to be judged in terms of destruction and degradation, at the moment it is winning.
Heating up the planet
Climate change brought about by greenhouse gases and the resulting warming of the planet dates from the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century. According to analysis by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times”. Two thirds of this increase took place since 1975, and it’s intensifying. Nine out 10 of the hottest years on record occurred since 2000 and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this sharp increase is “due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gas concentrations”.
As Naomi Klein puts it, climate change “has less to do with carbon [and other polluting emissions] than with capitalism”. An extreme form of capitalism that only prospers when certain negative aspects of human behavior are elicited: selfish, materialistic tendencies, which the ideological disciples, who benefit from this divisive way of living and believe in its dogma are committed to encouraging. Honing in on Ms Klein’s statement further, we can say, as Pope Francis, UCL and others have concluded, that the most significant cause of man-made climate change is the food and drink of capitalism – consumerism.
The logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness
Worldwide, awareness of climate change varies from region to region. In a Gallop poll of 128 countries taken in 2008, it was found that overall 61 per cent of the global population were aware of global warming, of which only 11 per cent felt they “knew a great deal about it”. Europe was the region where awareness was highest, 88 per cent being aware, with 70 per cent knowing “something about it”. This figure drops in the Americas (North and South) to 64 per cent and plummets to 45 per cent in Asia, 37 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 42 per cent in North Africa and the Middle East.
Even where some acceptance of climate change exists, people are often reluctant to change their lifestyle and make the required sacrifices – for example, stick with their existing mobile phone, buy less stuff, reduce the use of electricity/gas, give up that diesel car or use public transport.
Awareness of climate change is a beginning, but understanding of the underlying causes and effects is needed to change behaviour, as well as a major shift away from selfishness and greed. Such tendencies create separation – from oneself, from others and from the natural environment – desensitize us and lead to complacency. These ingrained patterns of behaviour are strangling the purity out of the Earth and stifling the humanity in us…
Knitted firmly into the heart of this culture and the crises facing humanity is neo-liberalism – an unjust system that needs to be laid to rest and replaced by one that flows from the recognition that humanity is a family and that all human beings have the same needs and the same rights to live secure, dignified lives…
Moving away from the present unjust economic model would create the possibility of purification taking place: purification first and foremost of us, of the way we think and act…
Purification of our internal lives, in which we break the addiction to material goods, cease to look externally for happiness and reduce our levels of consumption, will lead to purification of the natural environment.
A massive education programme is needed to bring about such a shift in thinking and behaviour, one that inspires a shift in consciousness away from the idea of the individual as the centre of all activity, determinedly competing with everyone else, to recognition of one’s place within the whole and the responsibility that goes with that…
Otherwise, the model of consumerism will continue to advance, and with it the further contamination of the Earth, the destruction of ecosystems and the heightened threat to human life.
The choice is ours.