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Choosing between life and lifestyle

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 30 April 2007

People in western countries have to make some tough decisions. We simply cannot continue to live the way we have been over the last few decades. We can get smart and change our behaviour, or we can keep doing what we are doing and condemn everyone on the planet to great hardship and eventually death.

The basic problem is this: pollution and resource depletion caused by mass industrial development, now occurring on an increasingly global scale, have resulted in an emerging global crisis. The two most obvious aspects of this crisis are climate change and oil depletion.

Rapid oil depletion would result in economic chaos, but climate changes threaten to end civilisation itself. The science tells us that unless we change our ways global warming will continue until it hits a tipping point, after which runaway warming will likely destroy the capacity for normal life on earth. Some scientists think we may have already hit that point; we can only hope they are wrong.


Some people place their faith in new technology, but there are no signs that such a development can occur in time to put things right. In sort then, we need to cut back dramatically on fossil fuel use, and thus energy use overall.

Estimates as to the amount of energy we need to cut back on range from about 60 per cent to about 90 per cent of current usage. We cannot achieve anything like these reduction levels and continue to live the way we do.

However, there are two ways of looking at this problem that suggest we can effectively manage the change, as long as we are intent on doing so.

The first point is that we only need to go back to the sort of energy usage levels of the early 1960s. Life was not bad in the 1960s. In fact, whenever researchers look at actual quality of life, it seems life was optimal in the period from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s.

In this period the things humans actually need to prosper - nutrition, shelter, health, education and social cohesion - were at adequate levels. So our real material and social needs were being met.

But in those days we also enjoyed a more communal existence. Neighbours knew each other; shops, churches, pubs and other social infrastructure were within walking distance and served as regular meeting points; children played together in backyards and parks; the elderly were part of the community.


Now, after several decades of economic growth, we have a worse nutritional situation, a worse health situation, and collapsing education systems. More and more people hide away in their huge McMansions and watch their wide screen TVs and suck down their choice of psycho-active drug because they are stressed and miserable.

Or else they are stuck away in suburban ghettoes with minimal social interaction. The young and the old lead increasingly lonely, isolated lives interacting with impersonal institutions or technology driven by commercial, not human need.

Things were hardly perfect in the 1960s, but it is arguable we lived a more balanced life in those days. The mix between the social, economic, cultural and personal was better than now when a toxic individualistic materialism has squeezed out most other things.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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