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We can't go on living like this

By Ted Trainer - posted Friday, 20 April 2007

We say we want to save the environment, and to have peace, and to eliminate poverty. And we do - but only until we see what this requires.

The fundamental cause of the big global problems threatening us now is simply over-consumption. The rate at which we in rich countries are using up resources is grossly unsustainable. It’s far beyond levels that can be kept up for long or that could be spread to all people. Yet most people totally fail to grasp the magnitude of the over-shoot.

The reductions required are so big that they cannot be achieved within a consumer-capitalist society. Huge and extremely radical change to very systems and culture are necessary.


Several lines of argument lead to this conclusion, but I’ll note only three.

Some resources are already alarmingly scarce, including water, land, fish and especially petroleum. Some geologists think petroleum supply will peak within a decade. If all the world’s people today were to consume resources at the per capita rate we in rich countries do, the annual supply rate would have to be more than six times as great as at present, and if the population of 9 billion we will have on earth soon were to do so it would have to be about ten times as great.

Second, the per capita area of productive land needed to supply one Australian with food, water, settlements and energy, is about 7-8 ha. The US figure is closer to 12 ha. But the average per capita area of productive land available on the planet is only about 1.3 ha. When the world population reaches 9 billion the per capita area of productive land available will be only 0.8 ha. In other words in a world where resources were shared equally we would all have to get by on about 10 per cent of the present average Australian footprint.

Third, the greenhouse problem is the most powerful and alarming illustration of the overshoot. The scientists are telling us that if we are to stop the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere from reaching twice the pre-industrial level we must cut global carbon emissions, and thus fossil fuel use, by 60 per cent in the short term, and more later.

If we cut it 60 per cent and shared the remaining energy among 9 billion people each Australian would have to get by on less than 5 per cent of the fossil fuel now used. And that target, a doubling of atmospheric CO2, is much too high to be safe. We’re now 30 per cent above pre-industrial levels and already seeing disturbing climatic effects.

These lines of argument show we must face up to enormous reductions in rich world resource use, perhaps by 90 per cent, if we’re to solve the big global problems. This is not possible in a society that’s committed to the affluent lifestyles that require high energy and resource use.


Now all that only makes clear that the present situation is grossly unsustainable. But this society is fundamentally and fiercely obsessed with raising levels of production and consumption all the time, as fast as possible, and without any limit. In other words our supreme, sacred, never-questioned goal is economic growth. We’re already at impossible levels of production and consumption but our top priority is to go on increasing them all the time.

If we in Australia average 3 per cent growth to 2070 and by then the 9 billion people expected on earth have all risen to the living standards we would then have, total world economic output each year would be 60 times as great as it is now. Yet the present level is grossly unsustainable.

The foregoing comment has only been about ecological and resource sustainability and our society is also built on a second deeply flawed foundation. We have an extremely unjust global economy. It’s a market economy and that means scarce things go to those who can pay most for them, which means, to the rich and not to the poor. So the few in rich countries gobble up most of the world’s resource production.

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A shorter version of this article was first published in The Age on April 7, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. You can find more on his work here.

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